In the last presidential election cycle we heard a lot about the 99% and the 1% and the rising divergence of the fortunes of these groups. But have you heard of the 26%? That’s the percentage of households headed by single moms and dads which is way more than double that of the 1950s. More than almost any other individual tax, fiscal or global economic or business policy, the trend toward less marriage has hindered upward social mobility and economic progress.
In a recent article appearing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson has written that the “un-coupling” of America has been an increasing contributing factor to the stagnant household incomes of many families. While technology, automation and outsourcing have certainly decimated the ranks of America’s Middle Class, marriage can be seen behind the success – or failure – of many.
The prototypical family of the 1950s – Ozzie and Harriet, two parents, dad working, mom at home and two kids in the yard – has long-since vanished from America’s landscape. More often than not, Middle Class incomes and wealth can be attributed to dual household incomes and women out-earning their spouses. In fact, if it weren’t for the contributions of Moms to the financial bottom lines of their family households, then there would be an even wider gap when it comes to measuring inequality.
It Takes a Village Plus Two
While there is a saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” and there certainly is truth in the fact that families succeed or fail because of the support systems and environment around them, at the micro-level it takes two – incomes that is. Since 1950, the incomes of those who have dual earner households have outpaced those of married couples with an at-home mom. Presently, this gap has risen to its widest point since 1950. A dual-earner household has a median income near $92,000 per year while a married couple with a single income is closer to a median of $50,000 per year.
And as noted by many in the Occupy Wall Street movement, incomes since 1980 have not kept pace with inflation. Earning power for most is actually negative. But at least for dual-earner households, incomes have risen 29% over the past 32 years. And most of that is a result of women working – both longer hours and for higher pay than men who also suffered the most from unemployment resulting from the Great Recession’s impact on middle management, manufacturing and construction jobs.
Single Parent Trap
One is the loneliest number crooned Three Dog Night. And when it comes to raising a family that’s certainly true. Compared to the dual-earner families with that $92,000 median income, the nineteen percent of households headed by a single mom have a median income of about $31,000 and the 7% of households headed by a single dad do better but not great at a median income of $42,000 per year. The evidence bears out that at least the married couples are better off even if both parents are not working.
It’s harder for someone to become socially and economically mobile when you’re stuck near the bottom rung of the ladder. It’s harder to get to – much less complete college – the traditional gateway into the ‘Middle Class.” And without that degree it’s harder to break the cycle of income inequality.
Marriage is increasingly a rite of passage limited to those of very similar backgrounds: higher incomes, higher education levels, ‘middle-class’ or higher family background. A veritable virtuous cycle.
And single-parenthood can be it’s own vortex. Those with the lowest levels of education or earnings are the least likely to marry according to The Hamilton Project.
Sociologists, economists and social commentators may argue about the causes of this low marriage participation rate. It could be the availability of government support programs (though with a 60 month cap on lifetime benefits, assistance programs are by no means a get-rich-slow scheme). It could be the availability of abortion and contraception providing women with choices (though more and more states are hindering access to these choices). It could be the higher incarceration rates of minority men who are more likely to be jailed for drug offenses than whites. It could be the reduction in funding job training programs and budget cuts impacting social support programs.
Regardless of the causes, the conclusion is clear: Being married and staying married are keys to secure yourself on the economic ladder of success and provide the best opportunity to your children.