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 

Family Structure Still Matters for Kids

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

It may not count for much with progressive commentators, but the intact family just keeps on inscribing itself ever more firmly in the empirical literature as the setting in which children do best. Presenting yet more evidence that an intact family benefits children, researchers from Columbia and Princeton Universities recently assessed data collected for 5,000 children, embedding their own findings in a careful survey of other relevant studies. Though the fine print deserves attention, editorialists around the country should be trumpeting the overall finding: Compared to children growing up in other circumstances, children growing up in an intact married-couple family enjoy numerous advantages that persist into adolescence and young adulthood.

To clarify these advantages, the Columbia and Princeton scholars scrutinize data for the 5,000 children involved in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a study focusing on children born in single-parent and cohabiting-couple families (“fragile families”) between 1998 and 2000 in mid-size and large American cities. Sophisticated statistical tests enable the researchers to analyze the impact of household type on children’s intellectual, behavioral, and medical profiles.

Taking the widely used Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test as a measure of cognitive development, the researchers find that standard picture: “all types of nontraditional or unstable families are associated with lower scores” than are found among children from intact families. The gap separating scores from children reared in an intact family from their peers reared in a cohabiting household falls below the threshold of statistical significance when researchers make allowance for background characteristics, such as race and parental education. But the researchers acknowledge that even their most sophisticated statistical models can explain only “some, but not all of these negative effects” that growing up in a nontraditional household apparently has on cognitive development.

The Columbia and Princeton team find further indications of the benefits of growing up in a married-couple family when they shift their analysis to behavioral problems: “Just as with the results for cognitive outcomes, all types of nontraditional or unstable families are associated with worse [behavioral] scores.” The behavioral problems, as it turns out, are particularly pronounced among children from single-mother households: “It appears that for aggressive behavioral problems, growing up with a single mother (stable or unstable) is worse than growing up with a cohabiting mother.”

The researchers also see health benefits accruing to children who grow up in a married-couple family. Tabulating data for the increasingly common problem of child obesity, the researchers find that, once again, the children with the best outcomes are those reared in an intact family. In contrast, “for obesity,” the researchers report, “the worst outcomes, across all three [statistical] models, is associated with growing up with a single parent (whether stable or unstable) or an unstable cohabiting parent.” The researchers further conclude that “this pattern is true as well for asthma,” as “instability appears to be the most important factor (with the worst outcomes found for children of unstable single or unstable cohabiting mothers).”

Of course, the Ivy League scholars are not the first researchers to compare the well-being of children in intact married-couple families with that of children in other household circumstances. They are not even the first to do this comparison with FFCWS data. It is, therefore, appropriate that they interpret their findings in the context of other studies, especially other FFCWS studies. Indeed, the scholars view their research against the backdrop of increasing professional concern about “the well-being of children in fragile families” and in the light of “research [that] overwhelmingly concludes that [such children] fare worse than children born into married couple households.”

Lest readers see only short-term advantages to children growing up in an intact home, the researchers cite studies showing that “children who live with single or cohabiting parents fare worse as adolescents and young adults in terms of their educational outcomes, risk of teen birth, and attachment to school and the labor market than do children who grow up in married-couple families.”

Of particular interest to the Columbia and Princeton scholars are earlier studies “using data from FFCWS [which] have found that, in general, children in traditional married couple families fare better than children living in single-mother or cohabiting families.” Summarizing the results of over a dozen fragile-family studies, the Columbia-Princeton team limns a clear pattern: seven of the studies surveyed identify a decidedly “positive effect of [the] traditional two-parent family,” with that positive effect manifesting itself in lower rates for behavior problems, obesity, asthma, and child abuse and in higher performance on tests of cognitive ability and better profiles in overall health. Eight of the studies documented the “negative effect of nontraditional families,” with children living in single-mother or cohabiting-couple households suffering from significant disadvantages in all of the same areas.

In trying to explain this pervasive gap, the Columbia-Princeton team highlights the lack of resources in fragile families: “Even with child support enforcement,” they point out “single parents are substantially more likely to be poor than their married-couple counter parts, and many children living with single mothers receive no child support.” Even when cohabiting couples command greater financial resources than single mothers, earlier studies have found that such couples are “less likely to share their income or invest in joint household goods than are married-couple families.”

Nor does it strike the researchers as likely that finances fully explain why children in intact married-couple families do better than children in fragile families. Earlier studies have adduced evidence suggesting that children in fragile families “are likely to be shortchanged” in “parental time.” After all, a single mother would “not have as much time to give to her children as would two parents in a married-couple family.” And when (as is often the case) a cohabiting mother’s partner is not the biological father of her children, “he is likely to invest less time in the children than he would in a married couple family where he is their biological parent.”

Raising further concern about the well-being of children in fragile families are earlier studies finding that single mothers and their lovers and cohabiting couples in such families “tend to have poorer relationship quality than do . . . married families and to report more conflict and less cooperation in parenting.” Such relationship problems in large measure account for the fact that “single-parent and cohabiting-couple families are both more susceptible to family instability than are traditional married-couple families,” with such instability exposing children to the stress of changing family structure and to the arrival in the home of a new and sometimes insensitive caregiver who has not known them since birth.

The Columbia-Princeton team serves their readers well both in outlining the results of their own results and in fitting their findings into a broader body of research. Given the unmistakable implications of that research, these scholars are quite justified in labeling as “worrisome” the social changes that have in recent decades resulted in “an increasing share of American children . . . being born to unwed mothers and thus the children . . . spending the early years of their lives in fragile families, with either a single mother or a cohabiting mother.”

In reflecting on the “policy implications” of their study and those of their colleagues, the Columbia and Princeton scholars stumble badly, however. Of course, it would be good “to reduce the share of children growing up in fragile families,” but when the researchers explain that this is to be done “through policies that reduce the rate of unwed births or that promote family stability among unwed parents,” readers can only ask why they see no positive affirmation of marriage. What, after all, does “family stability among unwed parents” actually mean? Worse, when the researchers go on to advocate initiatives that “boost resources in single-parent homes,” the readers can only wonder how anyone can ignore how much “means-tested” welfare undermines marriage among the poor. When the researchers advocate efforts “to address directly the risks these children face (for example, through high-quality early childhood education),” readers can only fear that a study that compelling documents the harms children have suffered as family life has collapsed has now become a utopian justification for hiring yet more government employees as family surrogates.

Despite the researchers’ largely unhelpful policy agenda, their study makes it clear that the well-being of children depends upon our ending our retreat from marriage and repudiating our even more disastrous dalliance with unwed childbearing and non-marital cohabitation.

(Jane Waldfogel, Terry-Ann Craigie, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, “Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing,” The Future of Children 20.20 [Fall 2010]: 87–112.)