Consider three decisions that young people make: at what points to stop their education, begin work, and marry and have children. Brookings Institution calculations of census data for 2009, a deep recession year, show that adults who graduated from at least high school, had a job, and were both at least age 21 and married before having children had about a 2 percent chance of living in poverty and a better than 70 percent chance of making the middle class — defined as $65,000 or more in household income. People who did not meet any of these factors had a 77 percent chance of living in poverty and a 4 percent chance of making the middle class (or higher). Unless young Americans begin making better decisions, the nation’s problems with poverty and inequality will continue to grow. Consider also that children of parents whose income was in the bottom 20 percent have a 45 percent chance of remaining in the bottom themselves. But if they get a college degree, they cut those odds by nearly two-thirds and quadruple their chances of earning more than $100,000.
The most shocking failure of individual responsibility is the decline of marriage and rise of nonmarital births. Brookings data show that if the same share of adults were married today as in 1970, poverty would be reduced by more than a quarter. And yet young women who have a high school degree or less education increasingly do not marry, and about 40 percent of their babies are born outside marriage, quadrupling the chance that they and their babies will live in poverty. Children from single-parent families have, on average, more developmental problems, including lower educational achievement, than children of married parents. This perpetuates poverty and lack of mobility into the next generation.