Family Instability in Childhood Affects American Adults’ Economic Mobility

People who did not spend their entire childhoods living in a stable two-parent family face greater chances of downward economic mobility than their peers who did, finds Deirdre Bloome of the University of Michigan.1

Children who experience changes in family living arrangements because of divorce, cohabitation, or remarriage are more likely to “fall down the income ladder” as adults and have a lower income level than their parents.

Children From High-Income, Unstable Families Are at Risk for Low-Income Adulthoods

Overall, Bloome finds that people raised in either stable or unstable families face similar chances of escaping poverty and being upwardly mobile from the bottom of the income distribution (that is, the lowest 20 percent, or fifth, of income earners). But among households at the top of the income distribution, those from unstable families are more likely to be downwardly mobile than their peers raised in stable families.

Her analysis is based on data from 1979 to 2010 for participants in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a national sample of 14- to 22-year-olds followed through adulthood. She grouped participants by childhood family structure, examining their household income level in childhood and at ages 30 to 50.

Bloome’s study finds that people raised outside two-parent families are more likely to end up in the lowest-fifth of income earners, echoing the results of previous research. Specifically, it shows that about 28 percent of children raised outside of two-parent families end up in the lowest fifth of the income distribution as adults, compared with almost 17 percent of those from stable two-parent families.

“Among people from relatively high-income families, those who were raised outside stable two-parent families were less likely to maintain these childhood advantages than those who were raised in stable families,” she says.

The chance of falling into the bottom fifth of the income distribution in adulthood was “particularly high for people experiencing family instability,” Bloome notes. When compared with people raised in stable two-parent families, the chance of those raised in unstable homes having an income in the lowest fifth of the income distribution in adulthood was nearly 50 percent higher for people from the middle fifth of the income distribution and roughly twice as high for those from the top fifth.

Additional Support for Children Raised in Unstable Families Could Change Income Patterns

Bloome’s analysis finds that income mobility between childhood and adulthood is more strongly related to the number of changes in family living arrangements people experience during childhood rather than to the number of years they spend living in a two-parent household.

She also finds that people who grew up in unstable families are less likely to have stable adult marriages, which may contribute to their downward economic mobility.

Because the share of children born to parents who are unmarried or cohabiting at the time of their birth is increasing—and family instability is high for these children—the risk of downward mobility that widens inequality is likely to rise, she points out.

Providing additional support for children raised outside stable two-parent homes could change these income patterns and address inequality, Bloome argues. “Increased availability of preschool programs, affordable higher education, paid parental leave, and flexible work arrangements could provide opportunities for all children to receive the support that children from stable two-parent homes are more likely to receive,” she suggests.



1. Deirdre Bloome, “Childhood Family Structure and Intergenerational Income Mobility in the United States,” Demography 54, no. 2 (2017): 541-69.