NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Family Decay Causes Social Stratification

September 30, 2002

Because Americans hate the idea of social classes we try to pretend we don't have any. Up to 80 percent of survey respondents will tell an interviewer they are "middle class." Being middle class is in some sense part of being a real American, observers say.

But social class is the most important determinant in family structure, say experts, and the decline in the traditional two-parent family has hurt social mobility and will be a major cause of social stratification in the next century.

  • Married couples in the upper income groups are much more likely to be in intact first marriages -- simply put, divorce is much less common among upper income groups.
  • Among mothers who married, 77 percent of those in the bottom income fifth divorced at least once, while for those in the top two fifths, only 21 percent divorced.
  • Experts found that the differences in family structure between upper and lower income households are effectively unchanged by correcting for the effects of divorce.
  • Among non-Hispanic whites in the bottom income fifth, only about 19 percent of the households with children consist of intact first marriages, while 78 percent of the non-Hispanic white households with children that fall into the top income group consist of intact first marriages.

So, even after factoring out race, the link between income and family structure persists.

Experts conclude that as a result of the dissolution of the traditional family since the 1960s -- a phenomenon that has taken root particularly among poorer families - class segregation will increase and social mobility at the bottom will decline. And America's image of itself as one big middle-class society will wither away.

Source: Charles Murray, "Family Decay Hurts Equality," American Enterprise, April/May 2002, American Enterprise Institute.


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