Family Structure, Inequality, and Opportunity

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"Family Structure, Inequality, and Opportunity"

There’s no doubt that shifts in family structure play a role in both inequality and in its inter-generational transmission. The gap in resources (but in terms of money, social capital, and parental attention) available to a child of two high-earning professionals, and those available to a kid raised by a lone working-class mom is much bigger than the gap that would exist if the inequality in earnings weren’t intensified by the difference in family structure.

That said, it was strange to read this from Sawhill & Haskins:

Actually, some other advanced economies offer more opportunity than ours does. For example, recent research shows that in the Nordic countries and in the United Kingdom, children born into a lower-income family have a greater chance than those in the United States of forming a substantially higher-income family by the time they’re adults. […]

[A] more important reason for our lack of progress against poverty and our growing inequality is a dramatic change in American family life. Almost 30 percent of children now live in single-parent families, up from 12 percent in 1968. Since poverty rates in single-parent households are roughly five times as high as in two-parent households, this shift has helped keep the poverty rate up; it climbed to 13.2 percent last year. If we had the same fraction of single-parent families today as we had in 1970, the child poverty rate would probably be about 30 percent lower than it is today.

Now guess where they have more single-parent families than the United States?

Among 14 countries analyzed in the report by the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of all live unmarried births in the USA — 40% in 2007 — ranks somewhere in the middle. That’s up from 18% in 1980. The sharpest rise was from 2002 to 2007, the report found. Countries with a higher proportion of births to unmarried mothers include Iceland, Sweden, Norway, France, Denmark and the United Kingdom; countries with a lower percentage than the USA include Ireland, Germany, Canada, Spain, Italy and Japan.


Now I can think of some reasons you might say that notwithstanding the success the Nordic countries have had in creating a low-inequality, high-opportunity society despite low marriage rates that marriage promotion policies are still the right solution for the United States. But it does seem to me that if you’re going to write about why the U.S. falls short of Nordic levels of inequality, you can’t just turn around and start talking about marriage without even mentioning actual out-of-wedlock birthrates in Nordic countries. “We should have really high taxes like Denmark” is not a great political slogan for an American politician, but the facts are what they are—high opportunity countries are also highly egalitarian countries, and highly egalitarian countries get that way largely through high taxes and high levels of social services.


It’s worth being clear that a big part of the issue here is that in the Nordic countries it’s quite common for committed couples raising children to just not be married. In the US a child whose mother isn’t married is typically growing up without his or her father being present, which isn’t the case in Sweden or Norway.

Of course, this isn’t an unknown phenomenon in the United States either. And a successful marriage-promotion effort would, at the margin, presumably be inducing the most-committed couples — which is to say the most Nordic-style ones — to get hitched, not the least-committed ones.


,And to further further clarify, the term “Nordic” actually obscures a bit here as Iceland has lots of American-style single-parent households.


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