If You're Rich, Does Divorce Mean Downward Mobility For Your Kids?

There's nothing quite like arguing about relationship trouble during the holidays. Then again, welcome to America. We don't just do it at awkward family gatherings. We make it political, too. A new round of combat shows there's more to the conflict than we already thought. But there's no indication either side in the culture war is about to win.

Consider the latest report [pdf] from the Pew organization's Economic Mobility Project. As W. Bradford Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies explains, "children from the top third of the income distribution are markedly less likely to maintain their station in life as adults if their parents divorce[.]"

The details? Not pretty. Wilcox notes at The Atlantic that better-off kids are "markedly more likely to fail to graduate from college, to have a child outside of wedlock, and to lose the socioeconomic status of their childhood than their peers raised in an intact, married family."

Stack that up against the perspective of those who have been there, however, and the plot thickens. Wilcox is bothered by the snarky way that Matt Yglesias, Slate's econoblogger, waves away these kinds of worries. Sure enough, Yglesias gets pretty callous in urging New York Times columnist David Brooks to think about the specter of divorce-driven downward mobility in terms of his own current breakup: "My anecdotal experience growing up in affluent circles in Manhattan," Yglesias writes,

was that parental marriage disruption is very hard on kids, even on rich kids. But that's hard meaning that it's sad, not meaning that it's a substantial barrier to the kids going to college and maintaining a high socioeconomic status. My guess is that Brooks' kids will find their parents' breakup to be pretty upsetting but that they'll also get along fine in life, possessing all the various advantages that come from being David Brooks' children.

To be sure, many of us have more than anecdotal experience when it comes to putting your head down and excelling despite serious disappointment and even despair. And it's a truism now in post-economic crisis life that the "one percent" -- by which we more often mean something like the "point zero zero one percent" -- carries class advantages so extreme that you really have to work overtime to fail down instead of up.

Nevertheless, there's a world of difference between the psychological struggles of a child raised in the milieu of a nationally renowned writer and the otherwise similar struggles of, say, a kid raised by high-income but low-net-worth parents who are divorcing but aren't plugged in to the very heart of the East Coast power corridor. All wealthy parents aren't equally situated, and that goes double for parents with kids going through divorce.

Yglesias -- much as Warren Buffett and Barack Obama have done when pushing for higher taxes -- skips over the real point: it's insane to treat upper-middle-class people as if they belonged in the same socioeconomic class as those at the tippy-top of American cultural, political, or business power.

But it's not so easy to concede this round to Wilcox and company, either. "Staying together for the kids" might work in a desperate sort of way when there's a strong norm in favor of intact nuclear families. Today, that's pretty much gone. So there's little support from neighbors, colleagues, and social institutions for those living life in a marriage that's really gone wrong. And as anyone who's lived that life knows -- as a parent or a child -- ending a failed marriage really does help create at least the possibility of a more functional, peaceful, and predictable set of relationships among parents and children.

Love it, hate it, or shrug, that's where we are -- and that's why the burden falls mostly on us as individuals. Can we find the courage to make choices grounded in authentic integrity about what to do in a marriage on the rocks? If not -- whatever our net worth -- we're likely to suffer, and our kids right along with us.


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