Home economics

Michael Barone has written an important column about the relationship between the breakdown of the American family and income inequality and lack of social mobility. Barone relies in part on Nick Shultz’s book Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure which I have not read.

Barone’s thesis — that growing up outside of a two-parent family means lower income, less social mobility, and less “human capital” — is not controversial among social scientists. It is affirmed, Barone says, by undoubted liberals such as Harvard’s David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks.

Yet this fact seems vastly underappreciated in public policy debates. For example, President Obama is now avowedly focused on addressing income inequality and lack of upward mobility. But neither he nor anyone else of his political persuasion (or even much closer to the center) seems very interested in focusing on the relationship between these phenomena and the breakdown of the American family.

The reasons for this reticence are obvious. First, Obama does not want to offend unmarried parents, an important portion of his base. Second, Obama does not want to open up a discussion about the extent to which liberal policies and attitudes have contributed to family breakdown.

Nonetheless, the numbers demonstrate the centrality of family breakdown in the lack of social mobility. According to a study cited by Shultz, 50 percent of children who start off in the bottom third of the income distribution, but whose parents are married, move out of the bottom third. Those aren’t bad odds. But for children from “broken” homes, the number is only 26 percent.

The other side of the coin is that family breakdown is far more prevalent at the lower end of the economic spectrum than higher up. As Barone observes, citing Charles Murray, “rates of divorce and single parenthood among college-educated whites, after increasing in the 1970s, are down almost to 1960s levels” while “among low-education, low-income whites, as well as blacks and Hispanics, family disintegration has become the norm.”

“Nurture,” then, is creating a vicious cycle that undermines upward mobility. Low income family arrangements tend to be less nurturing because of the lack of two parents. And the lack of two parents perpetuates low income.

“Nature,” may also undermining upward mobility. People are marrying later in life than they did decades ago. This probably means they are selecting their partners at college, graduate school, or in their profession to a greater degree than in the old days.

If so, the offspring of the intellectual elite may well be intermarrying more than in the old days. This pattern of selection might mean that, as a matter of nature, their offspring have become increasingly equipped to remain in the upper end of the income distribution scale.

This thesis is highly speculative, of course. However, there is no doubt about the “nurture” thesis. Family breakdown is a major driver of income inequality and declining social mobility.

For me, then, the remedy for these phenomena does not consist of income redistribution, regional planning that causes people to live where they rather wouldn’t, or other items from the traditional leftist wish list. The remedy consists in more responsible behavior.

There are ways that public policy can encourage such behavior, but only at the margin. Fortunately, as Barone reminds us at the end of his piece, history shows that the relevant types of behavioral patterns do change, and not just for the worst.

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