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 

Fatherless Teens—Learning to Act Like Scrooge

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

The challenge charitable organizations face in trying to raise funds is only going to grow more daunting as ever more children grow up in broken homes. Recently completed by economists at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), a new study indicates that young adults who have grown up in non-traditional families are decidedly less generous in contributing to charitable causes than are peers who grew up in intact families. This same study also documents a disturbing deficit in volunteerism for a significant subgroup of those who experience a change in family structure during adolescence.

To determine to what degree the “prosocial behavior” of young adults reflects the family structure(s) they knew as children and adolescents, the researchers examined data collected from 1,011 young adults who were 25 to 33 years old in 2011. These data indicate that “young adults ever not in a two-biological-parent structure were much less likely to make a charitable gift (34.4 percent versus 48.9 percent), and their average conditional gift also was substantially smaller ($312 versus $578).”

Transitions in family structure—such as that of moving from an intact family to a one-parent family or from a one-parent family to a stepfamily—also stifle charitable impulses. The researchers calculate that “a young adult who experienced a family-structure transition during adolescence is predicted to give 22.8 percent less [to charities] than a young adult who did not experience a transition.”

In the study’s “sub-sample of European-American young men” (hardly a small sub-sample!), the researchers also detect “a significant negative association” between a transition in family structure during adolescence and subsequent willingness to volunteer for charitable work. (For the study sample as a whole, the relationship between young adult volunteerism and earlier family-structure transitions did not reach statistical significance.)

The IUPUI scholars interpret their findings against the backdrop of earlier research in which, “compared to living with two biological parents, other family structures have been associated with a wide range of adverse children’s achievement, behavioral, and psychological outcomes: lower test scores, dropping out of high school, neither being employed nor in school, problem behaviors, early childbearing, smoking, and distress.”  The findings of this new study indicate additional deficits—deficits in “prosocial behavior”—associated, first, with growing up in a non-intact family and, second, with experiencing a transition in family structure during adolescence.

The authors of the new study appropriately draw on earlier research suggesting that “parents experiencing stress due to marital conflict both pre- and post-divorce must focus on their own family’s needs, and hence may be less attentive to the needs of people outside the family, implying less modeling of charitable giving and volunteering, less emphasis on helping people outside the family.”  Consequently, children in such families “observe models of hostility rather than models of caring.”

Because they see in their findings evidence that “adolescence is a sensitive stage in the development of charitable giving and volunteering,” the researchers identify as one of the “practical implications” of those findings “the need to undertake more than the usual amount of action to promote the development of charitable giving and volunteering behavior among adolescents in families experiencing structure transition.”

But for Americans who truly want a future in which charitable causes flourish, no practical implication of this study will seem more evident than the need to foster marriage and prevent divorce.

(Robert Bandy and Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, “Family Structure and Income during the Stages of Childhood and Subsequent Prosocial Behavior in Young Adulthood,” Journal of Adolescence 35.4 [2012]: 1,023-34.)