America / Politics

Socio-Economic Mobility


Any attempt to revive the fortunes of The American Dream must address family structure.  

The current conversations on opportunity, and how to create it, capture preconceived notions surrounding this most cherished end. The belief that religious, racial, and gender inequalities define opportunity in America is a firmly held one. However, new studies suggest that family structure is actually the most robust predictor of economic mobility, and therefore the most important economic determinant. The single strongest predictor of a child’s economic fate is the fraction of single parents in the area in which they grow up. In communities with high percentages of single mothers, children are significantly less likely to experience absolute and relative mobility. PEW Research center found that children of single parents, who start in the bottom third of the income distribution, have about a 25 Percent chance to move up to the middle or top third as adults. Children with continuously married parents, in contrast, are twice as likely to move up.  

This is especially relevant given that the US is markedly less mobile than comparable nations. Put simply: parents matter, and an emphasis on family structure is integral to how we rethink upward mobility.  

Problem Definition 

To get to the bottom of social immobility, the conventional belief that the US is a classless society must be reevaluated. Research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts revealed that around 62% of Americans raised in the top fifth of incomes today will stay there in their adult lives. Similarly, 65% of those born into the bottom fifth will never move up. Even in areas where students have had the best opportunity to move up the income ladder, a vast majority of them simply do not. This phenomenon is historically consistent; in the 80s, children who grew up in the middle of America’s income distribution had less than a 20% chance of making it to the top. Unsurprisingly, less than 8% born into the poorest fifth of the US population have managed to reach the top quintile of earners. It’s clear: where on the economic ladder children are born- more often than not- determines where they end up.  

In accord with this reality, a compelling new study conducted by Harvard as a part of the Equality of Opportunity Project found that family structure is the single most dependable indicator of economic mobility. Children born into continuously married families have much better economic mobility than those in single-parent households. This finding is consistent with prior studies; according to the Brookings Institution, children are more likely to climb the income ladder when they are raised by two, married parents. Children of married parents have a significantly better chance at social mobility, even in areas with more single parents than married. Parents’ income is a predictor of their children’s, and a nudge for their general life- trajectories. Family structure is essentially connected to a child’s education, marital status, and adult family income later on in life.  

Marriage is a powerful force in breaking the vicious cycle of poverty. The legal basis and support of the institution of marriage creates the most likely conditions for children to thrive. Consistency, stability, and sufficient resources to support both extended families are key developmental factors. While marriage is not a guarantee of these conditions, they are significantly less likely to be present in other family circumstances. Recent studies have revealed that two-parent families produced children who excel on a number of key developmental indicators, outperforming their peers who had been raised in other family structures. Big picture: it’s not just the children and families who benefit, but society as a whole, when familial patterns cultivate productive, responsible, well-rounded individuals.  

Policy Implications 

Policymakers and pundits have long called for policies to “bring back marriage”. While the case for that may be made, program evaluations show that prior initiatives, such as Building Strong Families, have not been successful. In fact, they’ve had no real impact on couples’ likelihood to get married or remarried. This isn’t to render social marketing a hopeless tool for changing social norms and behavior. Rather, program failures have made it blatantly clear that government efforts to change the norms about family planning and marriage will need to be even more nuanced and innovative if they have any chance at efficacy.  

The ‘success sequence’, put forth by some researchers, is one straightforward solution: get at least a high-school degree, get a full-time job, get married before having any children. The general consensus, of course, is that young Americans should be incentivized and supported in doing so. Comprehensive policy measures, that tackle the complexities of achieving this end, are necessary.  


Radically rethinking our approach to economic mobility, in light of new data, is only fitting to keep with the times. The nuclear family has been dragged into the maelstrom of present-day culture wars, against all reason. Though a seemingly impossible undertaking, reviving the American Dream will require using pages from both left and right playbooks on matters ranging from zoning to education reform. More fundamentally, it’ll require bipartisan confrontation of the glaring numbers and legislative commitment to the traditional family structure