Institute of Education


Men from poor backgrounds twice as likely to be single and have lower earnings than their rich counterparts

11 August 2017

A new working paper co-authored and funded by CLOSER, a consortium of UK longitudinal studies based at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), explores the importance of family background for household income.

Construction worker

Published today by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the study uses data from the National Child Development Study (NCDS) and British Cohort Study (BCS70), both based at the IOE.

Comparing data between 2000 and 2012, the researchers find that sons of richer parents are more likely to have a partner than their less well-off counterparts, and from that are more likely to earn more. Even among men in couples, the study finds that the partners of men from richer backgrounds earn 73% more than the partners of men from poorer families.

The study finds that the difference in partnership status and partner earnings by family background were considerably smaller in 2000 than in 2012. As female earnings are an increasingly important component of household income, these trends significantly reduce the household incomes of men who grew up in poor families compared with those who grew up in rich families. The researchers show that this change in household composition has strengthened the link between the incomes of parents and children and hence reduced social mobility.

The paper finds that more than one-in-three men aged 42 from the poorest fifth of families did not live with a partner in 2012, compared with only one-in-seven men from high-income backgrounds. This is the result both of lower rates of marriage and of higher rates of relationship breakdown amongst men from low-income families. Men from low-income families were almost twice as likely never to have been married and more than twice as likely to be divorced as those from high-income backgrounds. Amongst men born 12 years earlier, there was little difference in partnership status by family background.

Professor Alison Park, Director of CLOSER, said:

“This new research highlights the role of longitudinal studies in helping us understand how society is changing from generation to generation. It shows how existing differences in the earnings of men from richer and poorer backgrounds are exacerbated by a new divide, with poorer men in their early 40s being less likely than those from wealthier backgrounds to be living with a partner.”

The paper also reveals a widening earnings gap between men with richer parents and their counterparts from less well-off backgrounds. In 2012, employed 42-year-old men whose parents were among the richest fifth of households earned on average 88% more than those from the poorest families. In 2000, the equivalent gap for men of the same age was 47%.

Chris Belfield, a research economist at IFS and an author of the paper, said:

“Focusing solely on the earnings of men in work understates the importance of family background in determining living standards. As well as having higher earnings, those from richer families are more likely to be in work, more likely to have a partner and more likely to have a higher-earning partner than those from less well-off backgrounds. And all these inequalities have been widening over time.”

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Ryan Bradshaw
Email: r.bradshaw@ucl.ac.uk
Tel: 020 7612 6516 

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