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 

Generating Social Capital in Canada

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Many sociologists resist the verdict, but the empirical data continue to establish that the married-parent family is the social ideal; it consistently and independently delivers a wide range of social goods. The latest evidence comes from a study conducted at the University of Alberta, a study that explains why society has a vested interest in increasing the number of intact married families and reducing the number of single-parent and cohabiting households: not only do these families function better internally but they also strengthen the broader community through maternal volunteerism. Moreover, the neighborhoods where intact families reside are stronger and more cohesive.

Analyzing data representing 6,223 households from the first wave (1994) of the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, Joshua Freistadt and Lisa Strohschein establish that stably married, two-biological-parent households stand in a class by themselves. When compared to stable cohabiting two-biological-parent households or stable single-biological-mother households, married-parent families scored significantly higher on the McMaster Family Assessment Device, an instrument that measures the level of communication, trust, support, and conflict in a household. This robust pattern remained statistically significant even when controlling for a wide range of a demographic characteristics.

Moreover, the researchers found that married mothers generate significantly more “social capital” than do single or cohabiting mothers. These mothers reported significantly more involvement in school activities, church groups, and community organizations (social involvement); they also reported greater trust, reciprocity, and cohesion in their immediate community (neighborhood cohesion).

These findings illustrate how the entire community disintegrates when the family breaks down. Yet the real insight of the study emerged when the Canadian sociologists set up interaction tests to measure the effects of the two social-capital measures on family functioning. When the researchers looked at maternal involvement and at neighborhood cohesion, they found that each predicted higher levels of family functioning. However, they also found that neither of these variables accounted for the significant disparities in family functioning separating intact families from cohabiting-couple and single-parent households. Only one disparity shrank when the researchers scrutinized these two variables: higher levels of social cohesion translated into high levels of family functioning for both married- and cohabiting-parent households. Elevated levels of social cohesion did not, however, translate into significantly improved family functioning for single-mother households.

Because of their findings, the researchers “confidently assert that these differences [in family functioning] stem from the respective family structures themselves.” They also concede, “Policy efforts to improve extra-familial social capital among certain households may deliver few rewards.” Yet they remain curiously reluctant to embrace the natural family, lamenting that their methodology of using married-parent families as their reference category “unwittingly reinforces this category as the gold standard and overlooks the fact that families are embedded in external contexts that might be used to improve their internal relations.”

If they adopted the gold standard that their findings validate, Freistadt and Strohschein would not need to search for “eternal contexts” to prop up households that lack a marital foundation.

(Joshua Freistadt and Lisa Strohschein, “Family Structure Differences in Family Functioning: Interactive Effects of Social Capital and Family Structure,” forthcoming in Journal of Family Issues.)