Family Structure, Race, and Intergenerational Income Mobility in the United States

Deirdre Bloome, Harvard University

The declining prevalence of two-parent families helped raise income inequality over recent decades. What role does family structure play in reproducing income inequality across generations? If family structure shapes how parents transmit economic advantages to their children, then recent shifts in family life may perpetuate inequality between groups defined by childhood family structure. Moreover, because of large racial differences in single-parent families' prevalence, family-structure differences in mobility may also perpetuate economic inequalities between racial groups. Using NLSY data, I combine parametric and nonparametric methods to explore how family structure and race shape intergenerational mobility. I find that individuals from single-parent families are much more mobile than individuals from two-parent families. Their mobility indicates instability: difficulties maintaining middle-class incomes generate weak intergenerational ties. High downward mobility among people from single-parent homes suggests a new form of “perverse equality,” as historically-disadvantaged demographic groups are less “positively constrained” by family background.

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Presented in Session 13: Race and Ethnicity and Families