As the Family Goes, So Too Does the Economy? Or Is It the Other Way Around?

25 Sep 2018

Social and economic class and family structure have a relationship that is neither merely causal nor merely consequential. The book Unequal Family Lives, just published by Cambridge University Press, explores the many levels on which they influence one another.

Most of the chapter authors of the new book Unequal Family Lives: Causes and Consequences in Europe and the Americas first presented their research on family inequality issues at an STI Experts Meeting in Rome in February 2017. Scholars from the fields of law, sociology, public policy, economics, political economy and demography shared ideas that differed not only by discipline but also by geographical, cultural and philosophical perspectives.

What they generally agreed upon was that class inequality is reflected in different models of family formation, which then contribute to greater inequality, in either a vicious or virtuous cycle. There was less agreement about the weight of the numerous factors involved, and the best way to nudge the cycle toward a positive evolution. 

It has been established that families are becoming 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.

Policy responses are often based on an implicit assumption 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, the trend moves in the other direction as well.   Combatting growing economic inequality requires understanding what conditions this complex relationship as well as what mediates it.

To that end, authors considered questions such as:

  • 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?


The book discusses contextual factors that underlie variations in family structures, and it also explores the ways in which economic and cultural changes reinforce one another. It is organized onto 5 sections organized as follows: Part I describes the unequal character of family life in Europe and the Americas, Part II explores its causes, Part III describes various consequences of diverging family structures, and Part IV presents potential solutions for bridging the growing family divide (or minimizing its consequences). The final Part provides commentary and concluding reflections on the overall questions explored throughout this volume.

In the words of the editors, “this book puts family change at the center of the conversation about growing economic inequality across Europe and the Americas. Using evidence from countries that vary in both culture and public policy context, we gain more insight into how family inequality is entwined with inequalities of class.”