Family well-being – UK lessons for USA

Policies under the previous Labour governments 'meaningfully improved' children's opportunities in the UK, says a report summarising research into family life in the UK and USA. It warns that the USA, by contrast, is a 'cautionary tale' for free marketers who would remove the social supports from low-income mothers and their children.

The research project was a collaboration between Manchester and Harvard Universities between 2006 and 2012. It studied changes in social cohesion and social capital in the UK and USA, linking the themes of economic inequality, instability and social mobility in family life.

Key findings

  • In both the USA and UK lone mothers are younger, less educated, and have lower incomes and higher levels of residential and relationship instability than married or cohabitating mothers. Cohabiting couples in the UK look more like married couples, whereas in the USA they look more like families headed by a lone mother. High levels of residential and relationship instability are associated with higher maternal stress, lower income growth, harsher parenting and reduced child well-being.
  • In both the USA and UK, just over half of sons with fathers in upper-white-collar jobs follow them into the same social stratum, whereas only about one in five children of fathers who were unskilled manual workers end up being in the upper-white-collar class (although the rate is slightly higher in the USA than in the UK). Black people in both countries experience higher levels of downward occupational mobility and lower levels of upward occupational mobility than white people.
  • For the cohort born around 1960, the association between parental income and child income in adulthood is weaker in the UK than in the USA. The relatively stable level of educational inequality in the USA, coupled with increasing returns to education, may translate into lower rates of intergenerational mobility for younger cohorts. The story in the UK is 'only slightly more hopeful'.
  • Differences in family structure contribute to higher levels of income inequality in the USA compared with the UK. In particular, a higher proportion of families in the USA are headed by lone parents with low levels of income and education. Income is more stratified by education in the USA: that is, the returns to being a college graduate and the penalty for being a high school drop-out are both higher. The 'permanent variance' of incomes is much larger in the USA: after accounting for individual characteristics such as age, race and education, variation in family income is about 50 per cent higher in the USA. The 'transitory variance' of incomes – the amount of income volatility within families - is higher in the USA: the two-year changes in income are about 40 per cent higher.

Reflecting on the research findings, the editors note that the UK’s success in reducing childhood poverty under the previous Labour governments (1997–2010) should prompt the USA to consider emulating both the ambitious goal and many of the specific policy changes introduced during that period. At the same time, UK policy-makers currently promoting austerity to reduce deficits should 'closely note' how weaker support for families in the USA serves to increase disadvantage, inequality and family instability.

: Bruce Western and Edward Fieldhouse (eds), Inequality, Instability & Mobility in Family Life: The United Kingdom and the United States, Social Change: A Harvard–Manchester Initiative (SCHMi)