The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Broken Homes, Young Adults Shortchanged

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The World War Two generation bequeathed to its children a remarkable legacy of family life and family wealth. Will the same be said about the boomer generation? Given higher rates of divorce and lower rates of fertility among boomers, the prospects that their children will benefit as they did are not encouraging. Indeed, a study exploring the relationship between financial transfers to adult children and the marital status of their parents suggest that the younger generation—especially where divorce has shattered a family—should not expect to receive the kind of bonus their parents may have received from the grandparents.

While Shelley Clark of McGill University and Catherine Kenney of Bowling Green State University focus their attention on how remarriage alters the patterns of financial transfers by divorced parents to their biological adult children, their study nonetheless demonstrates that divorce clearly reduces the likelihood that parents will help their children financially. Crunching data from six waves of the Health and Retirement Survey (1992 to 2002), and measuring the likelihood of adult children’s receiving a $500 transfer in the previous two years, the sociologists found that this pattern holds up regardless of whether divorcing parents remain single or remarry. The pattern was most pronounced, however, when divorcing fathers remarry, as the odds that any of their adult children receive a transfer are cut in half.

In all three of the researcher’s statistical models, the odds ratios were statistically significant (p<.05) in three categories of divorced parents: biological father with stepmother; biological mother with stepfather; and biological single mother. Only when a divorced biological father remained single was the reduced likelihood of making a transfer to an adult child statistically insignificant. However, in the model with full controls, single divorced fathers, relative to fathers who remained married, were marginally less likely to make transfers (p<.10). Yet in all models, remarriage made a divorcing father less likely to help his children financially.

Given that divorced fathers in the sample were more likely to remarry (77 percent were currently married) relative to divorcing mothers (63 percent were currently married), Clark and Kenney estimate that 21 percent of divorced mothers overall had given a transfer to their children, while only 16 percent of divorced fathers had done so. That may confirm a “matrilineal tilt” in intergenerational transfers, but the low numbers nonetheless indict parental divorce as a loss for their children. Had the researchers also estimated the percentage of transfers from biological parents who remained married, their study could have drawn attention to the “marriage tilt,” or the greater financial commitment of married parents, relative to their divorced peers, to their adult children.

(Shelley Clark and Catherine Kenney, “Is the United States Experiencing a ‘Matrilineal Tilt?” Gender, Family Structure, and Financial Transfers to Adult Children,” Social Forces 88.4 [June 2010]: 1753–76.)