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The Five Factors That Determine Early Development

Here we briefly review five separate, but often highly intercorrelated, factors or forces that influence child development and, ultimately, IGM by determining whether the gates to opportunities are open, slightly ajar, or closed for the child. Unless we are able to counter the distributions of advantage and disadvantage that are influenced by each of these factors, we will not be able to meaningfully increase opportunity or mobility for those children born to disadvantage. We begin with the two most closely related factors: family structure early in life and parenting. These are followed by economic factors (money), social institutions, and neighborhoods.

Family Structure

Family formation and parenting practice are treated together, as they are often highly intertwined and because they matter a great deal from a child's earliest days through adolescence and beyond. Many analysts believe that family composition and stability may matter even more than income for equality of opportunity and IGM. As McLanahan and coauthors (McLanahan 2014; McLanahan and Jacobsen 2013) and Cherlin (2014) have established, we are seeing a growing parental class divide in America—in income, education, neighborhood, and especially family formation.

Children born into continuously married families have much higher economic mobility than those in single-parent families, especially those headed by unmarried mothers. In this regard, we must recognize the long, steady decline of marriage. In 1960, only 12 % of adults aged 25–34 had never married; by the time they were 45 to 54, the never-married share had dropped to 5 %. But by 2010, 47 % of Americans 25–34 had never married, and based on present trends, their share will be about 25 % in 2030 when they're 45–54 (Wang and Parker 2014). This is a stunning decline that befuddles demographers and social policy wonks alike. The growth in the number of single unmarried mothers in the United States has both been massive and concentrated among the least educated (no high school degree), as well as those, especially in their 20s, who have graduated high school and even may have some postsecondary education. These women are typically more educated than the men who fathered their children and do not want to marry men who do not have an education or regular jobs. Some scholars believe that changes in the labor market have been particularly important in reducing the marriageability of undereducated men (Wilson 1996). Others argue that incarceration and street violence have drastically reduced the numbers of Black men who are eligible for marriage. [1]

Because family differences begin at birth, it is often useful to characterize the middle ground of an issue by looking at the extremes. If we examine both what is considered to be the best and the worst ways to become a parent, we can better understand the genesis of “diverging destinies” (McLanahan 2014; McLanahan and Jacobsen 2013). The “best” way to become a parent is through living the American Dream. The process is the same for men and women alike: Finish school, find a decent job, find a partner you can rely on, make plans for a future together including marriage as a commitment device (see Lundberg and Pollak 2013), and then have a baby. Following this path will likely mean that parents are age 25 or older, more educated, and more likely to have a stable marriage. They have better parenting skills and smaller families, along with more income, auxiliary benefits, and assets to support their children. For their children, these characteristics translate into open gates for opportunity.

At the other extreme, the step “have a baby” (between the ages of 16 and 22) moves to the top of the list, preceding all the other steps. These parents typically have not finished school, do not have a steady or well-paying job, do not have a stable marriage or steady partnership, and likely never had a plan. They have less education (high school or less), are younger and less skilled, and have lower wages and fewer benefits and more multipartner fertility. The result of this personal choice is less social and economic stability, as well as fewer resources and opportunities for their children (Smeeding et al. 2011b; Carlson and Meyer 2014; Smeeding 2015). For single women under 30, almost 70 % of pregnancies are also unintended (Sawhill 2014). And there is now strong evidence that unintended pregnancies produce poorer outcomes in children (Ibid.).

Changes in fertility/marriage, cohabitation/divorce, maternal employment, and maternal education are therefore reinforcing differences in income inequality (see below) and further reducing IGM among children. Perhaps the relationship between children and their mothers is the most important mechanism of how families affect development. Better educated women are more likely to obtain jobs with higher earnings and family leave benefits, allowing these mothers to invest more time and money in their children. They are also more likely to have fewer children, and children born later in life. Mother's age at childbirth matters because it is a strong indicator of the child's future economic mobility.

  • [1] Justin Wolfers, David Leonhardt, and Kevin Quealy. “1.5 Million Missing Black Men,” New York Times, April 20, 2015, men.html?abt=0002&abg=0
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