New York - Barcelona

Family Inequality: Causes and Consequences in Europe & the Americas

Rome, Italy -- February 16-18, 2017

The meeting explores why families are increasingly unequal throughout North America and Europe, with college-educated Americans and Europeans being much more likely to get and stay married, and less-educated Americans and Europeans being much more likely to face high levels of singleness, family instability, and single parenthood.

The steady rise in income inequality in advanced and developing economies has become a clear and persistent fact for most societies during the early 21st century.  With this growth in inequality has come increasing concern over the fraying of the social fabric that often emerges when the gap between rich and poor widens and political and economic power becomes concentrated in the hands of a select few.  As a result, many policymakers have moved inequality to the top of their agendas, arguing for a range of measures designed to promote economic mobility at the bottom of the income ladder, as well as others to address the growing power of economic and political elites at the top.

An implicit assumption in many of these policy responses is that the causes of inequality are primarily economic in nature, and hence require primarily economic solutions.  But while it is true that economic trends like globalization have exacerbated the inequality problem, it is too often the case that matters of family structure have been largely ignored in this debate. 

Principal inquiries

  • How does growing family inequality and the retreat from marriage fuel economic inequality and hinder growth in countries across the West?
  • Why has there been a “retreat” from marriage among poor and working-class citizens? How has this retreat widened the gap between rich & poor?
  • How has the concentration of poverty in households headed by a single parent with children stifled upward mobility for the poor & working class?
  • What percentage of the growing gap between rich and poor since 1980 can be attributed to the decline in the number of two-parent households?
  • Is the connection between higher income inequality and single parent households stronger or weaker depending upon country of origin?
  • Has the rise in co-habitation as a substitute for marriage led to different causal results when it comes to its relationship with income inequality?
  • Is there a connection between family instability and declining birthrates that could further exacerbate income inequality in the future?
  • What public policies and civic initiatives can bridge this family divide?
  • What kind of public campaigns would raise awareness about this family divide?

Academic Leader

W. Bradford Wilcox - University of Virginia

Paper abstracts

Marcia J. Carlson - University of Wisconsin-Madison
Families Unequal: Socioeconomic Gradients in Family Patterns across the U.S. and Europe

Dramatic changes in marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and fertility behaviors over the past 50 years have been observed across a wide range of industrialized countries, sometimes referred to as the “second demographic transition” (Lesthaeghe and Neidert 2006). Yet, only within the past decade or so has there been growing awareness of the extent to which changes in family demography are unfolding unevenly by socioeconomic status, at least in the U.S. McLanahan (2004) first identified that differences by socioeconomic status (measured by maternal education) in a range of family behaviors were an important aspect of growing inequality (“diverging destinies”) among U.S. children. Less well understood is the extent to which these diverging family patterns by socioeconomic status are also occurring across European countries. In this chapter, I examine the extent to which socioeconomic gradients are observed with respect to a range of family behaviors (based on the extant literature) within North America and Europe.

Albert Esteve - Center for Demographic Studies
Family Forms and Social Inequality in Latin America

This chapter uses census microdata to offer an overview of Latin American families in their social and geographic diversity. First, it identifies the most salient features of Latin American family systems: early and stable age at union formation/childbearing and high levels of cohabitation, union dissolution, female headship and household complexity. Second, it shows differences by social groups (e.g. education, ethnicity, religion) and explore trends over time. Third, it explores heterogeneity within and across countries. The chapter concludes with a general discussion on the relationship between family forms and social inequality in Latin America.

Andrew J. Cherlin - Johns Hopkins University
Inequality Drives Family Formation

‚ÄčCherlin’s chapter will focus on the connection between household income inequality in a labor market and family formation, particularly the chances of having a first child prior to marrying.  It will specifically analyze availability in the labor market of jobs that a secondary school (high school) graduate can obtain that pay above poverty wages as a determinant of family formation.  He will argue that local area income inequality is a marker for the lack of such jobs.

Nicholas Eberstadt - American Enterprise Institute
Family Structure and Male Labor Force Participation in Postwar America

This paper will document and detail the great postwar "flight from work" by US men, in particular men of prime working age (25-54). Work rates for prime age men are currently (2015) slightly lower than in 1940, at the tail end of the Great Depression--and the overwhelming majority of men not working are not unemployed, but rather entirely out of the labor force. The US collapse in prime male LFPRs has been more extreme than in Europe or Japan, begging questions about the role of social welfare policies on the one hand and slow long-term economic growth on the other. The decline of work and labor force participation for prime age men tracks with ethnic, educational, and nativity differences--also with geography--but also strongly correlates with marital status.The flight from work has also in large part been a flight from marriage and parental involvement. Nonworking men furthermore have less engagement with civil society than men without jobs who are seeking work (i.e. the unemployed). A potentially important factor in the long term decline of prime male LFPRs may be criminality and the explosive growth of the male at-large felon population--but much more data are needed to understand these dynamics.

Brienna Perrelli-Harris - University of Southampton
Universal or unique? Understanding diversity in partnership experiences across Europe

While research has demonstrated that families are becoming increasingly unequal in America, this is not necessarily the case in Europe. Country context is very important for understanding partnership patterns and subsequent outcomes. This chapter explores the diversity of partnership experiences throughout Europe, drawing on recent research on trends in partnership by education, social norms and discourses surrounding cohabitation, and legal policies that regulate cohabitation and marriage.

W. Bradford Wilcox and Joseph P. Price - University of Virginia / Brigham Young University
What does the family have to do with economic growth in a cross-national context?

Economics has its roots in the Greek word oikonomia, which means the “management of the household.” Yet economists across the ideological spectrum have paid little attention to the links between household family structure and the macroeconomic outcomes of nations, states, and societies. This is a major oversight because, as this paper will show, shifts in marriage and children’s family structure are important factors in nation’s rates of economic growth. Specifically, countries with higher levels of two-parent families, and lower levels of non marital childbearing, enjoy higher levels of economic growth.

Anna Garriga - Pompeu Fabra University
Family Instability and Children’s Outcomes in Europe

Frances Goldscheider - University of Maryland
Class and the Gender Revolution

Recent (2015) issues of Population and Development Review by Esping-Anderson and Billari and by Goldscheider et al. have argued that the completion of the gender revolution (i.e., engaging men more thoroughly in the family) might strengthen unions and increase fertility.  In response, in the same journal, Andrew Cherlin worries (2016) that there are many reasons in the global system of the 21st century to fear that this pattern will remain characteristic only of citizens of countries with strong state support for families, such as those in Scandinavia, and perhaps of the more educated in other societies, but not diffuse to the rest of the class structure in most countries.  This paper will examine the bases for Cherlin’s concerns through a review of studies showing strong class differences in family patterns, together with those that show weaker differences in family patterns by class, and assess whether and which policies appear to be linked with larger vs. smaller differences.

Richard Reeves - Center on Children and Families
Where's the glue? Policies to close the family gap

The "family gap" in formation, structure and stability is a policy concern for two principal reasons. First, because of the impact on contemporary poverty levels, especially for women. Second, because of the impact on the development, life chances and upward mobility of children. Policy interventions may influence both of these, but more often aim at one more than the other. Being clear about the specific goals is vital. I argue for policies of two kinds: prevention and mitigation. Preventing family instability involves policies to promote job security and wages, improve work incentives, expand available leave for both fathers & mothers and reduce unintended pregnancy rates. Mitigating family instability involved policies to improve parenting, early years education, education reform and asset-based welfare. I argue for a primarily "One Generation" approach, focused on children's outcomes. 

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