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 

Disparities that Won’t Go Away

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

One of the presumptions of the War on Poverty is that providing income and social services to single parents (or to “low-income families” in welfare-state jargon) will put children in such households on a level playing field with their peers from two-parent families (or middle- and high-income families). Yet a study by Ming Wen of the University of Utah finds that such attempts to assist single-parent households do little to temper the “deleterious” effects of unwed parenthood on children’s health and well-being.

Wen analyzed data from the 1999 National Survey of America’s Families, one of the largest and most representative surveys of U.S. children and their parents, providing a sampling of 20,667 children, ages 6 to 17. In unweighed statistical tests, the sociologist found that children in two-parent families and stepfamilies, relative to their peers with single-parents, had better socioeconomic (SES) indicators (higher household income, greater levels of parental education, and lower rates of financial hardship) and better social-capital indicators (higher levels of parental participation in volunteer work and public worship). All these correlations were statistically significant, at p<.05. In addition, SES and social-capital indicators were each negatively linked to two child-health indicators and an index that measured behavioral and emotional dimensions of child well-being.

In looking for mediating factors to explain these differences, Wen’s multivariate analysis incorporated SES and social-capital indicators into the baseline model, but found that “substantial differences in aspects of child well-being persist in most cases” (emphasis added). While SES factors were found to have greater explanatory power than social-capital indicators, neither category by itself or when combined with the other dramatically changed the disparities between family types. The impact of SES and social-capital indicators accounted for 64 percent of the effects of two-parent families, and 41 percent of the effects of stepfamilies, on the general health status of children; on the second health indicator—serious health conditions of children—the two indicators accounted for 63 percent of the health effects of two-parent families. Their impacts were dramatically less on the variable that measured the behavior and emotional well-being of children.

Claiming that “a considerable portion of the baseline family-structure effects remain in the full model,” Wen admonishes policymakers to “tackle the source of the problem—the demographic trend toward marital dissolution or out-of-marriage child bearing.” Seeing little hope in public-policy strategies that aim to reduce disparities among disadvantaged groups, the researcher pens words rarely found in the literature but which needs to be heard: “The absence of one parent may have a direct effect on child development independently of all proposed mechanisms simply because it is fundamentally distressing that a child is not able to live with both parents and enjoy a ‘normal’ childhood.”

(Ming Wen, “Family Structure and Children’s Health and Behavior: Data from the 1999 National Survey of America’s Families,” Journal of Family Issues 29 [November 2008]: 1492–1519).