Family life during childhood is a strong predictor of later-life economic outcomes. Growing up with the continuous presence of loving and supportive parental figures can help children through critical developmental years, while the lack of a stable or supportive home environment can be detrimental for children by negatively affecting educational performance, behavioral health, and the formation of social and peer networks. This can influence a child’s trajectory in educational attainment and later economic success in adulthood. Although the strength of the effect declines over time, families with two married parents have the strongest prospects for economic security and stability.

To see more information on the predictors related to financial well-being that the Working Group considered, as well as references for the research described on this page, see the section “Boosting Upward Mobility: A Supporting Framework” in the report.


Family Structure and Stability

The Working Group determined that family structure and stability is a strong predictor of mobility from poverty. Research finds that growing up in a household with two married parents is a powerful predictor of intergenerational upward mobility. However, considerable debate exists among researchers and experts, including within the Working Group, about whether two married parents reflect demographic reality for many households or whether other structures may provide equally effective stability and support. Further, the Working Group was more interested in the concept of family stability over structure, but measures of stability were not widely available. Despite this debate, the Working Group consistently acknowledged the importance of family structure and stability on child well-being and mobility. Further, the security of a stable, long-term relationship with a partner contributes to adults’ security and mobility.

Metric: Share of Children in Various Family Living Arrangements

The share of children living in each of six mutually exclusive arrangements (which sum to 100 percent): two married biological or adoptive parents; one biological or adoptive parent and that parent’s current spouse or partner; one biological or adoptive parent and at least one other adult; one biological or adoptive parent; at least two adults, but no parent; all other arrangements.

Validity: Children’s living arrangements are recorded in household rosters used in several federal datasets.

Availability: Data on living arrangements are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and Public Use Microdata Sample.

Frequency: New data for the metric are available annually. For subgroup analyses in less populated areas, several years of data may need to be pooled to obtain reliable estimates.

Geography: Data are available at the county and metropolitan levels.

Consistency: Data on children’s living arrangements is measured the same way across all geographies and over time in the American Community Survey.

Subgroups: The metric can be disaggregated by race or ethnicity, gender, and other demographic factors. For less populated areas and for certain demographic groups, multiple years of data may need to be pooled to obtain reliable estimates.

Limitations: A large body of evidence suggests that both the presence and relationship of parents directly relates to children’s mobility. Ideally, the metric would directly reflect the continuous presence of loving adults in a child’s life, but data to construct such a measure are not consistently available at the city or county level. We recommended a metric detailing children’s living arrangements. Further, research shows that the influence of growing up in a single-parent household on later economic outcomes has been diminishing over the past few decades, and some research suggests that the strength of the relationship between married parents and child outcomes is much stronger for white children than for children of color. Like all metrics based on the characteristics of people living in an area, it can change because of residential mobility.

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