Using the Gates-Gaps Metaphor to Examine Opportunity and Mobility Early in Life

Having reviewed some of the evidence on the major economic, demographic, and social forces and factors that impede upward mobility for our youngest, most vulnerable children, we briefly return to the three life-cycle gates. Our goal is to examine the evidence regarding trends in the distributions of opportunity and of outcomes; that is, in comparison to earlier cohorts, have the distributions for very young children growing up in the twenty-first century become more dispersed (i.e., greater inequality) or more concentrated (i.e., lesser inequality)?

Remember that gates represent access (open gates) or obstacles (closed gates) to the opportunities to accumulate human capital and to have the possibility of upward mobility. We have divided the early life-cycle age span into three segments, with endpoints chosen to match critical transition points. Now we look at the gaps at each point to see if they are increasing, which would signal the cumulative widening of differences across children as they age. We pay attention here both to the gaps we find at each transition point and, where possible, the trends that may affect patterns in gaps for future generations.

Transition 1: Prenatal and Family Birth Status

The first step involves being born at a normal birth weight to a nonpoor, mature (partnered or, better, married) mother who has at least a high school diploma. While we know a little about trends in life quality at birth (Aizer and Currie 2014), we know from the diverging destinies literature mentioned above that 41 % of U.S. births are out of wedlock (vs. 11 % in 1970) and half of all births to women under 30 are out of wedlock (Hamilton et al. 2013). A majority of these births are unplanned as young adults “drift” into parenthood because of failed contraception or ambivalence about school and life goals (Sawhill 2014).

And for these parents, family complexity, defined here as having one or more children with someone who is not the birth parent of his or her earlier child, is greatest. Multiple-partner fertility leads to very unstable lives for children and adults, replete with communication and coordination issues across parents, complicated living arrangements, and much less available time for rearing of children (Carlson and Meyer 2014; Amato et al. 2014).

The facts are that marriage rates have fallen for all types of parents in their 20s, especially for White parents who, in earlier cohorts, were much more likely to marry by age 30 (Murray 2012; Cherlin 2014). But, somewhat surprisingly, the marriage rates for college graduates have held almost constant, along with relatively low divorce rates, over the past 40 years. This bifurcation in family formation patterns is a large component of the “diverging destinies” that young children face today.

Although never-married motherhood is rising among all women, we see in Fig. 8.4 that the fraction of never-married mothers with children under 18 is more than 20 % for those who did not graduate secondary school and 15 % for high school graduates, as compared to 3 % for those with a bachelor's degree or more. And these differences have been almost continually expanding over the past 40 years. Not only is out-of-wedlock childbearing highest among the least educated, but these births occur mainly to younger mothers, most of whom are poor or near poor, and most of whom have unstable living conditions in terms of both partners and living conditions (Edin et al. 2012; Tach 2015). Over their lifetimes, these mothers have more children per woman on average than the typical mother (Smeeding et al. 2011b). In contrast, well-educated parents have fewer children later (in marriage) under much better economic circumstances (McLanahan 2014; Sawhill 2014).

Looking at unmarried mothers by education group in Fig. 8.5, we can get at the differences in being raised by an unmarried parent. These figures suggest that outof-wedlock childrearing almost has not changed at all since 1980 for college-educated

Fig. 8.4 Never-married mothers by education attainment (Source: Brookings tabulations of the Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Sawhill [2010], Fig. 10, 26; The Economics of Inequality, Poverty, and Discrimination in the 21st century by Robert S. Rycroft. Reproduced with permission of Praeger in the format Republish in a book via Copyright Clearance Center. Notes: The sample includes noninstitutionalized, civilian women ages 16–64 with a child under age 18 living in their house. Never-married mothers are those who have never been married)

Fig. 8.5 Unmarried mothers by mothers' education (Source: IPUMS Census/ACS; Tach 2015)

(High Education) women, despite large increases among high school educated (Medium Education) and less educated (Low Education) women. These trends suggest widening differences and are not at all reassuring. [1] To be sure, the choice to have an unplanned child early in life handicaps both the parent(s) and the child, reducing absolute and relative mobility for both (Smeeding 2015).

  • [1] Of course one way to reduce this problem is reducing young unwanted pregnancy, which we turn to in the next section of the chapter.
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