In recent years, sociological research investigating grandparent effects in three-generation social mobility has proliferated, mostly focusing on the question of whether grandparents have a direct effect on their grandchildren’s social attainment. This study hypothesizes that prior research has overlooked family structure as an important factor that moderates grandparents’ direct effects. Capitalizing on a counterfactual causal framework and multigenerational data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, this study examines the direct effect of grandparents’ years of education on grandchildren’s years of educational attainment and heterogeneity in the effects associated with family structure. The results show that for both African Americans and whites, grandparent effects are the strongest for grandchildren who grew up in two-parent families, followed by those in single-parent families with divorced parents. The weakest effects were marked in single-parent families with unmarried parents. These findings suggest that the increasing diversity of family forms has led to diverging social mobility trajectories for families across generations.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
The model results combine estimates and standard errors from 20 multiple imputed data sets to account for uncertainty associated with missing data. The missing cases account for less than 20 % of the whole sample. Model estimates based on complete cases and multiple imputed data sets show similar results of the grandparent effects. See Falaris and Peters (1998) for a discussion of the potential impact of missing data in the PSID on schooling estimates.
I also experimented with using the average education rather than the highest education of parents and grandparents. The results are consistent with those presented in the article.
In particular, a test of interactions between Ā ij and the age group covariate shows little evidence of variations in multigenerational effects by cohort.
Aldous, J. (1995). New views of grandparents in intergenerational context. Journal of Family Issues, 16, 104–122.
Amato, P. R. (2005). The impact of family formation change on the cognitive, social, and emotional well-being of the next generation. Future of Children, 15(2), 75–96.
Aquilino, W. S. (1996). The life course of children born to unmarried mothers: Childhood living arrangements and young adult outcomes. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 293–310.
Astone, N. M., & McLanahan, S. S. (1991). Family structure, parental practices, and high school completion. American Sociological Review, 56, 309–320.
Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. (1986). The moderator–mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: Conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1173–1182.
Bartholomew, D. J. (1982). Stochastic models for social processes (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.
Bengtson, V. L. (1985). Diversity and symbolism in grandparental roles. In V. L. Bengtson & J. F. Robertson (Eds.), Grandparenthood (pp. 11–25). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Bengtson, V. L. (2001). Beyond the nuclear family: The increasing importance of multigenerational bonds. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 1–16.
Biblarz, T. J., & Raftery, A. E. (1993). The effects of family disruption on social mobility. American Sociological Review, 58, 97–109.
Biblarz, T. J., & Raftery, A. E. (1999). Family structure, educational attainment, and socioeconomic success: Rethinking the “pathology of matriarchy.” American Journal of Sociology, 105, 321–365.
Biblarz, T. J., Raftery, A. E., & Bucur, A. (1997). Family structure and social mobility. Social Forces, 75, 1319–1341.
Björklund, A., & Chadwick, L. (2003). Intergenerational income mobility in permanent and separated families. Economics Letters, 80, 239–246.
Blau, P. M., & Duncan, O. D. (1967). The American occupational structure. New York, NY: Wiley.
Bloome, D. (2014). Racial inequality trends and the intergenerational persistence of income and family structure. American Sociological Review, 79, 1196–1225.
Brand, J. E., & Thomas, J. S. (2014). Job displacement among single mothers: Effects on children’s outcomes in young adulthood. American Journal of Sociology, 119, 955–1001.
Bumpass, L. L., & Lu, H.-H. (2000). Trends in cohabitation and implications for children’s family contexts in the United States. Population Studies, 54, 29–41.
Casper, L. M., & Bianchi, S. M. (2001). Continuity and change in the American family. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Chan, T. W., & Boliver, V. (2013). The grandparents effect in social mobility: Evidence from British birth cohort studies. American Sociological Review, 78, 662–678.
Cherlin, A. J. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 848–861.
Cherlin, A. J., & Furstenberg, F., Jr. (1986). The new American grandparent: A place in the family, a life apart. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.
Coall, D. A., & Hertwig, R. (2010). Grandparental investment: Past, present, and future. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 1–19.
DeLeire, T., & Kalil, A. (2002). Good things come in threes: Single-parent multigenerational family structure and adolescent adjustment. Demography, 39, 393–413.
Denham, T. E., & Smith, C. W. (1989). The influence of grandparents on grandchildren: A review of the literature and resources. Family Relations, 38, 345–350.
Duncan, B., & Duncan, O. D. (1969). Family stability and occupational success. Social Problems, 16, 273–285.
Duncan, O. D. (1968). Inheritance of poverty of inheritance of race? In D. P. Moynihan (Ed.), On understanding poverty (pp. 85–110). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Dunifon, R., & Kowaleski-Jones, L. (2007). The influence of grandparents in single-mother families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 465–481.
Ellwood, D. T., & Jencks, C. (2004). The uneven spread of single-parent families: What do we know? Where do we look for answers? In K. Neckerman (Ed.), Social inequality (pp. 3–77). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Elwert, F., & Winship, C. (2014). Endogenous selection bias: The problem of conditioning on a collider variable. Annual Review of Sociology, 40, 31–53.
Erola, J., & Moisio, P. (2007). Social mobility over three generations in Finland, 1950–2000. European Sociological Review, 23, 169–183.
Falaris, E., & Peters, E. (1998). Survey attrition and schooling choices. Journal of Human Resources, 33, 531–554.
Featherman, D. L., & Hauser, R. M. (1976). Changes in the socioeconomic stratification of the races, 1962–1973. American Journal of Sociology, 82, 621–651.
Featherman, D. L., & Hauser, R. M. (1978). Opportunity and change. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Fischer, C. S., & Hout, M. (2006). Century of difference: How America changed in the last one hundred years. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Fomby, P., & Cherlin, A. J. (2007). Family instability and child well-being. American Sociological Review, 72, 181–204.
Frederick, C. (2010). A crosswalk for using pre-2000 occupational status and prestige codes with post-2000 occupation codes (Working Paper No. 2010–03). Madison: Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Fuller-Thomson, E., Minkler, M., & Driver, D. (1997). A profile of grandparents raising grandchildren in the United States. Gerontologist, 37, 406–411.
Furstenberg, F. F. (1990). Divorce and the American family. Annual Review of Sociology, 16, 379–403.
Furstenberg, F. F., & Cherlin, A. J. (1991). Divided families: What happens to children when parents part. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Furstenberg, F. F., Hoffman, S. D., & Shrestha, L. (1995). The effect of divorce on intergenerational transfers: New evidence. Demography, 32, 319–333.
Ginther, D. K., & Pollak, R. A. (2004). Family structure and children’s educational outcomes: Blended families, stylized facts, and descriptive regressions. Demography, 41, 671–696.
Goldin, C., & Katz, L. (2008). The race between education and technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hauser, R. M., Warren, J. R., Huang, M.-S., & Carter, W. Y. (2000). Occupational status, education, and social mobility in the meritocracy. In K. J. Arrow, S. Bowles, & S. N. Durlauf (Eds.), Meritocracy and economic inequality (pp. 179–229). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hayslip, B., Jr., & Kaminski, P. L. (2005). Grandparents raising their grandchildren: A review of the literature and suggestions for practice. Gerontologist, 45, 262–269.
Hertel, F. R., & Groh-Samberg, O. (2014). Class mobility across three generations in the U.S. and Germany. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 35, 35–52.
Hodge, R. W. (1966). Occupational mobility as a probability process. Demography, 3, 19–34.
Hogan, D. P., Eggebeen, D. J., & Clogg, C. C. (1993). The structure of intergenerational exchanges in American families. American Journal of Sociology, 98, 1428–1458.
Hong, G. (2015). Causality in a social world: Moderation, mediation, and spillover. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hout, M. (1984). Status, autonomy, and training in occupational mobility. American Journal of Sociology, 89, 1379–1409.
Hout, M. (2015). A summary of what we know about social mobility. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 657, 27–36.
Hout, M., & DiPrete, T. A. (2006). What we have learned: RC28’s contributions to knowledge about social stratification. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 24, 1–20.
Hout, M., & Janus, A. (2011). Educational mobility in the United States since the 1930s. In G. J. Duncan & R. J. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity? Rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances (pp. 165–186). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Hunter, A. G., & Taylor, R. J. (1998). Grandparenthood in African American families. In M. E. Szinovacz (Ed.), Handbook on grandparenthood (pp. 70–86). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Jæger, M. M. (2012). The extended family and children’s educational success. American Sociological Review, 77, 903–922.
Jencks, C., Bartlett, S., Corcoran, M., Crouse, J., Eaglesfield, D., Jackson, G., . . . Williams, J. (1979). Who gets ahead? The determinants of economic success in America. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Karabel, J. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Kaushal, N., Magnuson, K., & Waldfogel, J. (2011). How is family income related to investments in children’s learning? New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
King, V., & Elder, G. H., Jr. (1995). American children view their grandparents: Linked lives across three rural generations. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, 165–178.
King, V., & Elder, G. H., Jr. (1997). The legacy of grandparenting: Childhood experiences with grandparents and current involvement with grandchildren. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 848–859.
Krein, S. F., & Beller, A. H. (1988). Educational attainment of children from single-parent families: Differences by exposure, gender, and race. Demography, 25, 221–234.
Lam, D. (1986). The dynamics of population growth, differential fertility, and inequality. American Economic Review, 76, 1103–1116.
Manski, C. F. (2013). Identification of treatment response with social interactions. Econometrics Journal, 16, S1–S23.
Maralani, V. (2013). The demography of social mobility: Black-white differences in the process of educational reproduction. American Journal of Sociology, 118, 1509–1558.
Mare, R. D. (1997). Differential fertility, intergenerational educational mobility, and racial inequality. Social Science Research, 26, 263–291.
Mare, R. D. (2011). A multigenerational view of inequality. Demography, 48, 1–23.
Mare, R. D. (2014). Multigenerational aspects of social stratification: Issues for future research. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 35, 121–128.
Mare, R. D. (2015). Measuring networks beyond the origin family. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 657, 97–107.
Mare, R. D., & Maralani, V. (2006). The intergenerational effects of changes in women’s educational attainments. American Sociological Review, 71, 542–564.
Martin, M. A. (2012). Family structure and the intergenerational transmission of educational advantage. Social Science Research, 41, 33–47.
Matras, J. (1961). Differential fertility, intergenerational occupational mobility and change in the occupational distribution: Some elementary interrelationships. Population Studies, 15, 187–197.
Matras, J. (1967). Social mobility and social structure: Some insights from the linear model. American Sociological Review, 32, 608–614.
McLanahan, S. (2004). Diverging destinies: How children are faring under the second demographic transition. Demography, 41, 607–627.
McLanahan, S., & Percheski, C. (2008). Family structure and the reproduction of inequalities. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 256–276.
McLanahan, S., & Sandefur, G. (1994). Growing up with a single parent: What hurts, what helps. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morgan, S. L., & Winship, C. (2014). Counterfactuals and causal inference: Methods and principles for social research (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Musick, K. A., & Mare, R. D. (2004). Family structure, intergenerational mobility, and the reproduction of poverty: Evidence for increasing polarization? Demography, 41, 629–648.
Pearl, J. (2001). Direct and indirect effects. In J. Breese & D. Koller (Eds.), Proceedings of the seventeenth conference on uncertainty and artificial intelligence (pp. 411–420). San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.
Pearl, J. (2009). Causality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Pearl, J. (2014). Interpretation and identification of causal mediation. Psychological Methods, 19, 459–481.
Pfeffer, F. (2014). Multigenerational approaches to social mobility: A multifaceted research agenda. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 35, 1–12.
Preston, S. H. (1974). Differential fertility, unwanted fertility, and racial trends in occupational achievement. American Sociological Review, 39, 492–506.
Preston, S. H., & Campbell, C. (1993). Differential fertility and the distribution of traits: The case of IQ. American Journal of Sociology, 98, 997–1019.
PSID Main Interview User Manual: Release 2013. (2013). Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.
Raley, R. K., & Bumpass, L. (2003). The topography of the divorce plateau: Levels and trends in union stability in the United States after 1980. Demographic Research, 8(article 8), 245–260. doi:10.4054/DemRes.2003.8.8
Raudenbush, S. W., & Bryk, A. S. (2002). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Robins, J. M., & Hernán, M. A. (2009). Estimation of the causal effects of time-varying exposures. In G. Fitzmaurice, M. Davidian, G. Verbeke, & G. Molenberghs (Eds.), Longitudinal data analysis (pp. 553–599). New York, NY: Chapman and Hall/CRC Press.
Sandefur, G. D., & Wells, T. (1999). Does family structure really influence educational attainment? Social Science Research, 28, 331–357.
Sarkisian, N., & Gerstel, N. (2004). Kin support among blacks and whites: Race and family organization. American Sociological Review, 69, 812–837.
Seltzer, J. A. (1991). Relationship between fathers and children who live apart: The father’s role after separation. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 79–101.
Seltzer, J. A. (1994). Consequences of marital dissolution for children. Annual Review of Sociology, 20, 235–266.
Sewell, W. H., & Hauser, R. M. (1975). Education, occupation, and earnings: Achievement in the early career. New York, NY: Academic Press Inc.
Sharkey, P., & Elwert, F. (2011). The legacy of disadvantage: Multigenerational neighborhood effects on cognitive ability. American Journal of Sociology, 116, 1934–1981.
Silverstein, M., & Bengtson, V. L. (1997). Intergenerational solidarity and the structure of adult child-parent relationships in American families. American Journal of Sociology, 103, 429–460.
Silverstein, M., & Marenco, A. (2001). How Americans enact the grandparent role across the family life. Journal of Family Issues, 22, 493–522.
Solon, G. (2014). Theoretical models of inequality transmission across multiple generations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 35, 13–18.
Szinovacz, M. E. (1998). Grandparent research: Past, present, and future. In M. E. Szinovacz (Ed.), Handbook on grandparenthood (pp. 1–20). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Tach, L. (2015). Social mobility in an era of family instability and complexity. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 657, 83–96.
Thomson, E., Hanson, T. L., & McLanahan, S. S. (1994). Family structure and child well-being: Economic resources vs. parental behaviors. Social Forces, 73, 221–242.
Thornton, A. (1991). Influences of the marital history of parents on the marital and cohabitational experiences of children. American Journal of Sociology, 96, 868–894.
Uhlenberg, P., & Hammill, B. G. (1998). Frequency of grandparent contact with grandchild sets: Six factors that make a difference. Gerontologist, 38, 276–285.
VanderWeele, T. J. (2009). Marginal structure models for the estimation of direct and indirect effects. Epidemiology, 20, 18–26.
VanderWeele, T. J. (2015). Explanation in causal inference: Methods for mediation and interaction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wallerstein, J. S., & Kelly, J. B. (1980). Surviving the breakup: How children and parents cope with divorce. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Warren, J. R., & Hauser, R. M. (1997). Social stratification across three generations: New evidence from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. American Sociological Review, 62, 561–572.
Wightman, P., & Danziger, S. (2014). Multigenerational income disadvantage and the educational attainment of young adults. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 35, 53–69.
Wojtkiewicz, R. A. (1993). Simplicity and complexity in the effects of parental structure on high school graduation. Demography, 30, 701–717.
Wolfinger, N. H. (1999). Trends in the intergenerational transmission of divorce. Demography, 36, 415–420.
Wu, L. L., & Martinson, B. C. (1993). Family structure and the risk of a premarital birth. American Sociological Review, 58, 210–232.
Yahirun, J. J., & Seltzer, J. A. (2014, August). Grandparents’ involvement in biological and stepfamilies. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco, CA.
Zeng, Z., & Xie, Y. (2014). The effects of grandparents on children’s schooling: Evidence from rural China. Demography, 51, 599–617.
I am grateful to Cameron Campbell, Dwight Davis, Hao Dong, Benjamin Jarvis, Rahim Kurwa, James Lee, Robert Mare, Arah Onyebuchi, Sung Park, Judea Pearl, Judith Seltzer, John Sullivan, Donald Treiman, Amber Villalobos, Aolin Wang, Yu Xie, and Xiaolu Zang for their valuable suggestions. Any remaining errors are the sole responsibility of the author. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (SES-1260456). The author also benefited from facilities and resources provided by the California Center for Population Research at UCLA (CCPR), which receives core support (R24-HD041022) from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
(PDF 769 kb)
About this article
Cite this article
Song, X. Diverging Mobility Trajectories: Grandparent Effects on Educational Attainment in One- and Two-Parent Families in the United States. Demography 53, 1905–1932 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-016-0515-5
- Multigenerational mobility
- Family structure