It appears that in the 1970’s and early 80’s, marriage before children remained pretty much the expected norm among working-class couples, at least when men were well employed; by the 2000’s, that norm no longer held. Marriage has become irrelevant to lower middle-class women’s decisions about childbearing. The most disturbing part of this is that even in the lower middle class, children growing up with married parents are more likely to go to college and earn a high income at age 25—that is, to be upwardly mobile. For that to happen—and to see inequality and immobility decline across all classes—children will need something more than higher household spending. “Reversing the decline in married-parent families for children,” as Kearney concludes, “will likely require both economic and social changes.”
In 2004, the late Sara McLanahan published a landmark article called “Diverging Destinies: How Children Are Faring Under the Second Demographic Transition.” The paper was the first scholarly attempt to propose that the decline of the two-parent family in the United States since the 1960’s was intensifying the already unequal life chances for poor and more advantaged children. The insight encompasses an irony that continues to perplex social policy debates: post 1960’s changes in the family which promised people—especially women—greater personal freedom and liberation from traditional constraints was making inequality worse.
Armed with another 20 years of data, Melissa Kearney, an economist at the University of Maryland, has now revisited the subject in “The ‘College Gap’ in Marriage and Children’s Family Structure,” a working paper recently published in NBER. Her primary findings won’t surprise anyone keeping track of the scholarship on families and children, but she is able to expand and refine our understanding of the trends that McLanahan saw were creating a dangerous disparity in national well-being—disparities that since then have grown and hardened into a seemingly intractable socio-economic reality.
McLanahan’s article, based on surveys from 1960 to 1990, showed that while most college-educated women continued to raise their children in two-parent homes, that was no longer the case for the least-educated women. A sharp rise in single motherhood among that latter group during those decades was limiting the future of children who were already at a social-economic disadvantage. A third group of what, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll call lower middle-class women (those with a high school degree and perhaps a year or two of college) had a modest shift towards single motherhood but for the most part continued to marry and establish traditional two-parent families. Since that time, as Kearney demonstrates in her new paper, the lower middle-class family has all but collapsed. While the children of the least and highest-educated mothers continue to live in the same general family arrangements as they did in 1990, the percentage of their working-class peers growing up in two-parent families fell from 83% to 60 percent. They now resemble their poorer and least-advantaged sisters more than they do their college-educated peers. In this respect, Kearney’s paper adds to the considerable literature on the “hollowing of the middle class;” the middle class is dwindling while the ranks of the lower skilled and affluent grow further apart.
Taking advantage of a growing body of disaggregated data since “Diverging Destinies” was published—as well as a mounting interest in racial gaps—Kearney also delves into family differences between identity groups. At one end of the spectrum, a strong majority (77%) of white children and an even larger share of Asian children (88%) live with their married parents. In the middle are the 62% of Hispanic children living with their married parents and at the low end are 38% of black children (all 2019 numbers). The “college gap,” as the author calls it, holds for all four of the largest racial and ethnic groups, though there are notable differences between them. Black children are by far the least likely of the four groups to live with married parents, but they have a substantially better chance of doing so if their mother has a college degree: 60% of black children with college-educated mothers have both parents in the house compared to a mere 30% for both the other black education groups. Like the population as a whole, children of the lower middle class in all identity groups saw the biggest decline in two-parent households between 1980 and 2019. This pattern holds for Asians as well, but mothers of all education levels are far more likely to be married than mothers of other racial groups.