The children of college-educated parents are racing ahead of the children of less-educated parents.

In the US, if you are a child from a poorer family today, you face two extra disadvantages in your family life that the poor in the Great Depression typically did not experience.

First, your parents’ relationship with each other is likely to be much less stable than that of better off parents. In the past, the differences in stability across classes were much less pronounced. Today’s increased relationship instability for the poor – relative to the well-off – is an extra burden for their children, an additional limitation on their access to income, social capital and time with their birth parents.

Secondly, your parents’ relationship with you, the child, is likely to be distinctly different from the way today’s better-off parents interact with their children. College-educated parents are investing much more time plus a higher proportion of their income on educating and developing their children than their well-off counterparts did in the past. In comparison, poorer, typically less well-educated, parents have not made a parallel shift. They tend to carry on with a more traditional, less pro-active approach to parenting. College-educated parents seem to recognise much more profoundly the importance of high skills in the globalised labour market and are preparing their children more intensively than is the case with their less well-educated peers.

“We must tackle issues within family life that are depriving poorer children of access to parenting, income, social capital and educational skills.”

These two factors are disastrous for inequality. There is already a well-known and widening income gap between rich and poor. However, the increasingly different family life experienced by the children of the poor looks likely only to compound that disadvantage. It is reducing still further their opportunities for social mobility, particularly in a world where education is vital to getting ahead economically.

Let’s take the stability issue first. College-educated parents are typically waiting until they are older and financially settled before marrying to have children in fairly stable relationships. At the other end of the income scale, children are tending to be born to younger parents, who are less likely to be married and, more importantly, whose relationships are less stable. Parents, in short, are having children before they have settled their partner relationship. This means that children’s relationships with the adults in their household are often unstable – they may experience multiple partnership changes during childhood and considerable complexity in household arrangements.

There are considerable costs of such change. For example, in a household whose children have several fathers, some men may be reluctant to pay child support. A father may feel that, because another man’s child lives there, he cannot control how his own financial contribution is spent. Likewise, mothers may hinder access to children fathered by ex-partners. So, whereas fathers in intact parental relationships are spending much more time than in the past with their children, they are often spending much less time, or perhaps none at all, when separated from the mother. In short, in unstable households, there are disincentives for parents to operate in a way that maximises the use of their time and money in favour of the children.

Why are less-educated parents having children in less stable partnerships? Partly, because the sexual revolution of the 1960s removed the shame of pregnancy outside marriage. Economic changes have been at least as important. Unskilled men seem less ‘marriageable’ in traditional terms. Men without college degrees have experienced declining income and employment opportunities as well as reduced job security in a period when women’s earnings have risen along with their qualifications. So it has become much harder for many men to pass the ‘marriageability test’ of earning as much, plus a bit more, than his would-be wife. There are, thus, fewer incentives for a woman to wait until the right man with earning potential comes along.

As a consequence, in the US, we are seeing, for example, poorer African American men being shut out of family life. Some are reacting by opting for a hyper-masculinity. There is a lot of mistrust of the opposite sex among men and women of the lower educational groups. There is more domestic violence, a lot more drug and alcohol use and a lot more incarceration.

Added to this is a different appreciation between the social classes of the inputs that children need for the modern age. College-educated parents are spending more time with their children even when they are working – reading with them, having meals with them. Although mothers were at home more in the past, they were not doing things with their children. Today, working mothers – and fathers – are giving up leisure and spending high quality time with their children. In families where parents are less well-educated, children are often getting less father time, because fathers are not around after separation. Mothers, often on their own – and trying to earn for the family as well – simply don’t have the time, energy or skills to make up the deficit.

What can be done to address these additional disadvantages for the children of less well-off parents? Delaying parenthood until relationships are more stable would help. Good access to contraception is necessary but not sufficient in itself – there need to be additional incentives to bear children later in life. Women need opportunities to get well-paid work – hence the current attention in the US to improve childhood education. In some European countries such as Sweden, post-natal benefits are related to years spent at work. In these countries, women have been successfully incentivised to delay motherhood until they have sufficient access to these benefits. We are also seeing evidence that, in such countries, co-habiting relationships are more stable than in the US, though not as stable as marriages.

Something also has to be done for poorer men. What has happened to them in the last 30 years has been a disaster for the family. They used to be able to bring home the bacon and, now, many can’t. They need to be able to bring something to the table – in terms of income. But perhaps we also need to raise both the skills and the social status of men in child-rearing. Within the constraints of a globalised economy, we must tackle issues within family life that are depriving poorer children of access to parenting, income, social capital and educational skills. If we fail, it is difficult to see how we can successfully challenge rising inequality and diminishing social mobility.

Policy Implications

Family stability and high quality parenting are essential for reducing inequality in the next generation – support for parents needs to be part of educational policy.

Practice Implications

Programs that encourage young people to delay childbearing and invest in education and training are the most effective strategies for ensuring family stability and high quality parenting.


 McLanahan S (2012), Fragile Families and Children’s Opportunities, paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington D.C.

 McLanahan S (2004), Diverging destinies: how children are faring under the second demographic transition, Demography 41.4