When we started Michigan Future in 1991 we included in our initial presentations on the economy an observation that if you got a college degree (two year or four year) and if you raised your kids in a two parent household you were almost certainly going to be in the middle class. Turns out that is probably even more true today. And that increasingly the two go hand in hand: college attainment and married couples raising children.
New York Times reporter Jason DeParle just wrote on the topic in a revealing article entitled Two Classes, Divided by “I Do“. (By the way, DeParle is the author of one of my favorite books all time, American Dream, on welfare reform. Worth reading.) The article features two Ann Arbor based white women who work together. One college educated and married, the other a college drop out and raising three kids alone. That fact that they are both white makes the point that these trends are not primarily about race. All of America is dealing with this great divide. De Parle writes:
Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes. “It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides, according to an analysis by Child Trends, a Washington research group. Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent. Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class…
And the trends are moving in the wrong direction. As DeParle writes: “Across Middle America, single motherhood has moved from an anomaly to a norm with head-turning speed. … As recently as 1990, just 10 percent of the births to women like Ms. Schairer (white women with some postsecondary schooling but not a full college degree) occurred outside marriage, according to Child Trends. Now it has tripled to 30 percent, compared with just 8 percent for women of all races with college degrees.”
So marriage has become an key contributing factor, along with college attainment, in America’s growing income inequality. (As DeParle points out this is the inequality among the 99%. There are different causes for the huge and growing gap between the top 1% and everyone else.) Probably most worrisome is that the effect of growing up in a two parent (particularly college educated) household rather than one parent appears to impact the life outcomes of the children. DeParles continues:
But there are suggestions that the absence of a father in the house makes it harder for children to climb the economic ladder. Scott Winship of the Brookings Institution examined the class trajectories of 2,400 Americans now in their mid-20s. Among those raised in the poorest third as teenagers, 58 percent living with two parents moved up to a higher level as adults, compared with just 44 percent of those with an absent parent. A parallel story played out at the top: just 15 percent of teenagers living with two parents fell to the bottom third, compared with 27 percent of teenagers without both parents.