|David Leonhardt is the managing editor of a new venture at The New York Times that focuses on politics, policy, and economics. It features analytical journalism, with an emphasis on data and graphics.|
One of today’s more intriguing social-science debates is whether changes in family structure have helped cause the rise in economic inequality — or are merely an effect of that rising inequality.
I’ll have to generalize here a little bit, but in broad terms many liberals have argued that economic factors are the ultimate cause of family changes. Marriage has declined among lower-income Americans, according to this argument, because they are no longer able to find the sort of steady, good-paying work that allows for stable families. Among college graduates, on the other hand, marriages have actually become more stable — with divorce on the decline — because they’re still doing O.K. economically.
Conservatives instead tend to see family structure as a cause and inequality as an effect: The rise of single-parent families has caused economic hardships for many people in those families. If the country could find a way to promote stable marriages, across social classes, inequality would be lower than it otherwise is.
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