If you’re wondering about the chance your child has to breaking into the middle class by adulthood, a new study by the Brookings Institution provides some clues. The study breaks down the financial development of a person from childhood through adulthood into a number of milestones. With the achievement of each milestone, success for the next milestone becomes more likely. If an adult achieves the final milestone, he or she has an 81 percent chance of being considered a member of middle class (earning at least three times the poverty threshold).
Readers here are probably not concerned with entering the middle class so much as they are interested in maintaining middle class status through difficult economic times or building wealth beyond the middle class threshold. Taking a parent’s perspective, however, I’d imagine all readers would want their children, hypothetical or real, to be able to at least enter the middle class, relatively without help, as an independent adult.
The milestones used in the study can function as markers along the path. For someone who doesn’t meet one of the benchmark criteria for any particular milestone, the chances of being on-track to meet the next milestone are lower. Here are the milestones that help indicate a future in the middle class or better is highly likely.
- Family formation (at birth). Born at normal birth weight to non-poor, married mother with at least a high school diploma.
- Early childhood (age 0 to 5). Acceptable pre-reading and math skills and behavior generally school-appropriate.
- Middle childhood (age 5 to 11). Basic reading and math skills and social-emotional skills.
- Adolescence (age 11 to 19). Graduates from high school with a GPA at least 2.5 and has not been convicted of a crime nor become a parent.
- Transition to adulthood (age 19 to 29). Lives independently and family income at least 250% of poverty or receives college degree.
- Adulthood (age 29 to 40). Reaches middle class, family income is at least 300% of poverty.
The key to building and growing a strong middle class is ensuring those children who were not lucky enough to be born achieving the first milestone get on track to meet the second despite their circumstances, and that’s where community or government assistance needs to play a role. Children born into situations with a successful first milestone have a 72 percent chance of reaching the next milestone, but those without that initial advantage have only a 59 percent chance of getting on track by age 5. This identifies the need for early childhood education.
This 59 percent chance of getting on track to the middle class after missing the first milestone opportunity is the highest chance someone off track will have. If another milestone is missed in later development, it will be much more difficult to get back on track. Those who by age 29 do not live independently and have not earned a college degree and are not earning at least 250 percent of the poverty level have only a 38 percent chance of reaching the final milestone.
The role of early childhood education is important, regardless of the circumstances of birth, but in terms of final outcome, family situation is still determinant. The study offers this observation:
The first responsibility of parents is not to have a child before they are ready. Yet 70 percent of pregnancies to women in their twenties are unplanned and, partly as a consequence, more than half of births to women under 30 occur outside of wedlock.
In the past, most adults married before having children. Now childbearing outside of marriage is becoming the norm for women without a college degree. To many people, this is an issue of values; to others, it is simple common sense to note that two parents are more likely to have the time and financial resources to raise a child well. Many young people in their twenties have children with a cohabiting partner, but these cohabiting relationships have proven to be quite unstable, leading to a lot of turmoil for both the children and the adults in such households.
Government can help to ensure that more children are born into supportive circumstances by funding social marketing campaigns and nongovernmental institutions that encourage young people to think and act responsibly. It can also help by providing access to effective forms of contraception, and by funding teen pregnancy prevention efforts that have had some success in reducing the nation’s high rates of very early pregnancies, abortions, and unwed births. A number of well-evaluated programs have accomplished these goals and they easily pass a cost-benefit test and end up saving taxpayers money.
There is often a prevailing opinion among political leaders that failure to enter the middle class is a result of laziness or poor choices. This study shows, however, that many of the factors that improve the chance of entering the middle class are out of one’s control: family circumstance at the time of birth, early education in reading and mathematics, and appropriate behavior as a child. Without these milestones, breaking into the middle class as an adult is highly unlikely.
The study concludes that more than hard work, entrance into the middle class depends on the choices parents make for their children.
Published or updated September 21, 2012.