In the US, just 26 percent of “poor” Americans between the ages of 18 and 55 – those who are part of a household in the lowest earning 20 percent of the income distribution – are married. Just 39 percent of “working class” Americans – those lower-middle income Americans in the 20th through 50th percentile of earners – in the same age range are married.
By contrast, 56 percent of those in the upper part of the income distribution (51-100 percent) are married.
But when it comes to having children, the script flips. Poor women have, on average, 2.4 children, while working class women have 1.8 children and higher earning women have 1.6 children. The farther down the income distribution you go, the more likely it is that a woman has had at least one child, the younger she is likely to have had the child, and the more likely it is that the child was born out of wedlock.
The last point is a natural statistical consequence: if marriage rates rise alongside income and birth rates fall alongside income, it makes sense that children are more likely to born out of wedlock in poorer homes. But the statistics are striking, in that, in the middle of the income distribution, an increase of just $10,000 in annual income implies a child is one-third as likely to be born out of wedlock. A $20,000 difference in income is associated with a child being nearly six times as likely to be born out of wedlock.
Among children born between 1980 and 1994 – the Millennials – there’s a clear sequence to major life events that is highly correlated with income. About 61 percent of Millennials from poor families have had a child before marriage. About 45 percent of Millennials from working class families have had a child before marriage. Just 19 percent of Millennials from middle and upper class families have had a child before marriage.
Inversely, only 16 percent of poor mothers are married when they have their first baby, while 51 percent of middle and upper class mothers are married when they have their first baby.
These data are significant, and they reinforce the notion that “good” behavior begets good behavior. There are surely careful nuances in every situation, but success – in terms of long-term happiness, income, educational attainment, likelihood to be involved in social behaviors, and so forth – is extremely related to following the marriage-then-baby sequence.
This isn’t to say that all marriage is some kind of golden ticket to excellence; such a statement is easily disproven. But in an era where families are often an afterthought in discussions about social institutions, and in a time where leaders who support the notion of family are often derided, it’s important to remember that family is an important component of success. We reject that basic reality at our peril.