The United States’ reputation as “the land of opportunity” is a cruel bit of false advertising.
Americans are less likely to experience relative economic mobility than our peers in countries like Canada, Denmark, and Sweden. Children born to poor and working-class parents are considerably less likely to reach the highest rungs of the economic ladder than their richer classmates.
But why? One of the most promising new groups working to answer this question is Opportunity Nation, a group committed to working across partisan and ideological lines “to expand economic opportunity and close the opportunity gap in America.” Their newly released Opportunity Index includes 16 indicators, from high-school graduation to income inequality. But not one indicator relates to the family.
In fact, the opportunity story begins with our families—in particular, with our parents. As the Nobel-prize-winning economist James Heckman recently noted, “the family into which a child is born plays a powerful role in determining lifetime opportunities.” My own research using individual-level data from the Add Health dataset for the Home Economics Project, a new joint initiative between the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, indicates that adolescents raised in intact, married homes are significantly more likely to succeed educationally and financially. The benefits are greatest for adolescents from less privileged homes—that is, where their mother did not have a college degree.
As the next graph indicates, young men and women who hail from intact, married homes are much more likely to graduate from college. More precisely, young adults are at least 44 percent more likely to have graduated from college if they were raised by their married parents. This is important because a college degree is associated with better work opportunities, lower odds of unemployment, and a substantial wage premium.
Analyses use data from Add Health Waves I and IV. Wave I was collected in 1995 when respondents were in middle and high school. Wave IV was collected in 2007 and 2008 when the participants were 24 to 32 years old. An asterisk (*) indicates a statistically-significant difference (p < 0.05) between respondents who lived with both, married biological parents at Wave I compared with respondents from other family structures, controlling for respondent’s age and race/ethnicity. A hat (^) indicates that there was still a statistically-significant difference when Wave I household income was added as an additional control.