A child’s odds of breaking out of poverty or gaining a college education are heavily shaped by the father’s income and education level, says Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution.
In a couple of graphs that unpack piles of data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics at the University of Michigan, Reeves breaks education and income levels down into quintiles and shows the close connection between a father's level and how far his children go.
Whether you see that as a glass half empty or glass half full depend on your starting point, Reeves acknowledges. "If you assume that in an ideal world, where you would end up would bear no relation to where you started.” That is, he argues, if we had real equality of opportunity, 20 percent of every group would end up in the other four groups in the next generation.
Instead, 41 percent of kids whose father had top-level educational achievement stay there, and 36 percent of those who start in the bottom income bracket will remain there.
There is some mobility, of course. Of those who start in the bottom fifth of income levels, 35 percent end up in the middle class or above, which is roughly equal to the 36 percent who stay put.
"I think the truth is somewhere in the middle," Reeves said. There is mobility, but there is also not a pure meritocracy. "The persistence of income over generations at both the top and the bottom is high enough to make us ask questions about what is causing that," he added.
"But if you start with the view that, of course those who have rich parents are going to end up better off, if you start with that, then you could conclude that there's actually quite a lot of movement," he added.
Why do some stay put while others move? Reeves says the answer can be found in the acronym FERG, which stands for Family, Education, Race and Geography. And given that race and, to a lesser degree, geography are hard to change, the conversation naturally turns to the first two.
"It hugely helps if you are raised by married parents," Reeves said. "I don't think anyone disagrees now that family stability matters hugely for kids' life chances."
Some of the family influence Reeves ascribes to expectations that are hammered into kids by their parents. He notes that most high school seniors in the top 25 percent of income distribution expect to earn a post-graduate degree after college.
"They already banked the four-year (degree)," Reeves said. "And it's taken for granted that they will get an advanced degree."
Education is a key variable that could and should be addressed, Reeves said. He argues that America’s K-12 educational system replicates both privilege and poverty from one generation to the next.
Finally, he notes that race and geography are closely interlinked, with high poverty neighborhoods also having high concentrations of racial minorities.
He acknowledges further that single parenthood tends to correlate with race and ethnicity, with Asian-Americans being more upwardly mobile than Latinos or African-Americans, in part because they have greater family stability.
"These data are consistent with studies pointing out the strong effects of family structure on educational attainment," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and author of "Fatherless America."
Blankenhorn said it is not that surprising that a child's income or education would closely track that of the father, but that the more interesting question would be family structure.
"Why do some children whose fathers had low incomes and low educational levels end up, despite these deficits, rising higher than their fathers did in the areas of education and income?" Blankenhorn asked. "I wonder if a more straightforward look at father presence and at growing up in a two-parent home might not show that family structure is at least as predictive as income and educational status when it comes to child outcomes."
One pair of scholars who have looked closely at the role of family structure in mobility are W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Richard Lerman of American University in Washington, D.C., whose new report was recently published by the American Enterprise Institute.
Lerman sees close overlap between their work and what Reeves did with his two graphs. "While he does it with father’s education, which we didn’t have, we used mother’s education and single parenthood," Lerman said.
Wilcox and Lerman found that family structure greatly impacts both income and education levels of children, and the two reinforce each other: "Growing up with both parents increases your odds of becoming highly educated, which in turn leads to higher odds of being married as an adult."
At the far extreme, the boost of family structure is striking. A man and a woman who were both raised in intact households and are married themselves enjoy a $42,000 household income boost over unmarried peers raised in non-intact families.
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