A new study released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that the damage divorce does to poorer children's future economic mobility is even greater than the impact suffered from having only one parent.
"Divorce is particularly harmful for children's [economic] mobility," Thomas DeLeire and Leonard M. Lopoo said in their report, "Family Structure and the Economic Mobility of Children."
The two academics examined more than 30 years of data on some 2,200 families. In addition to tracking the incomes of parents and their now-adult children, the researchers looked at parental marital histories.
The data showed that parental divorce was a serious impediment to children's upward mobility.
Among children of low-income parents, only 26 percent of those whose parents divorced managed to climb into the middle or top income levels when they reached adulthood.
In comparison, half of the children raised by their married parents climbed out of poverty. Even children of poor unwed mothers did better than children of divorce - 42 percent of low-income children born to single moms eventually exceeded their mothers' incomes.
Findings like these suggest that "divorce is a meaningful barrier to a child's economic mobility," said John E. Morton, managing director of the Pew Economic Policy Group.
Family structure also played a role in black upward mobility, which previous Pew research has shown lags behind that of white families.
Among black low-income families, if the parents divorced, an astonishing 85 percent of their children did not escape that "bottom third of the ladder," the Pew study said. However, if black children's parents stayed married, significantly fewer of the children - 62 percent - stayed poor.
Marriage wasn't a panacea for poverty. Some children fell into poverty even though they grew up with married middle-class or wealthy parents, the study found.
But the researchers cautioned that if family structure has the same - or even larger - impact on families as their incomes, welfare "redistribution policies" will only have limited impacts, too.
Children already benefit in many ways when they grow up with married parents, the study noted, and "policies that improve marital stability or that mitigate the negative consequences of divorce" might also assist in their upward mobility, too, it concluded.