A child’s access to—or failure to achieve—the American dream is closely related to his or her neighborhood’s predominant family structure, more so than parental race, income, or education level, according to a study published last month.
The Opportunity Atlas: Mapping the Childhood Roots of Social Mobility by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty and colleagues examined economic mobility data and census figures at the neighborhood level. Chetty identified numerous demographic factors that affect a child’s chances of getting out of poverty as an adult, including how many two-parent families live in the neighborhood where the child grows up. The more married parents around, the better the children’s long-term outcomes.
“All else being equal—income, race, educational outcomes—children who grow up in neighborhoods with fewer two-parent families fare notably worse,” wrote New York Times columnist David Leonhardt about the study. Leonhardt is a rare liberal journalist who believes conservatives get it right on the correlation between single parenthood and poverty.
The study’s findings hold true even for children whose own parents were unmarried, proving the family makeup of the neighborhood has a profound influence on who goes into—or out of—poverty.
“Neighborhoods dominated by single parenthood tend to lock in intergenerational poverty,” Institute for Family Studies authors W. Bradford Wilcox, Jacob Leeuwen, and Joseph Price wrote after examining Chetty’s research. “Specifically, boys and girls raised in families with a household income in the 25th percentile [the bottom 25 percent] were much more likely to escape poverty as adults when they were raised in communities replete with two-parent families.”
The study also looked at different markers of poverty, including incarceration. It compared the lowest-income families (at a single 2010 point in time) and found incarceration rates of 44 percent for black men who grew up in Watts, a predominantly single-parent neighborhood in Los Angeles. But only 6.2 percent of black men were incarcerated who grew up in nearby Compton, a poor neighborhood in which 50 percent of households were headed up by single parents in the 1980s, compared to 87 percent in Watts.
The antidote, as The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector wrote, is marriage—the greatest weapon against American poverty. The latest poverty statistics for married couples with kids are now five to six times lower than for single parents. And yet, the majority of children grow up with no parent, a single parent, cohabiting parents, remarried parents—or some shifting combination of these over the years, according to the Pew Research Center. And never-married mothers are disproportionally racial and ethnic minorities.
Now armed with such data, some progressive organizations still miss the point about marriage and the family’s effect on children’s economic trajectory. TalkPoverty recently cited the September census study but clung to a tired interpretation of poverty as function of racism and unfair housing policies.
Christian ministries that strengthen marriages at the local level may stimulate the greatest poverty alleviation even as they advocate for changed attitudes on race and housing.