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 

Protection for Children When Parents Separate: Money? Mommy?

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

As social scientists make it increasingly difficult to ignore the harm inflicted on children when parents separate, policymakers and therapists look for ways to reduce that harm. Progressive theorists typically believe that the problem will disappear if lawmakers will simply give single mothers more generous financial support. Sometimes progressive therapists—who generally ignore family ties—wax positively ecstatic as they rhapsodize about how the extended family can compensate when parents separate. But a new study offers little to foster faith in either of these strategies for protecting children from the baleful effects of parental separation.

Completed by researchers from Berkeley, and the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Texas, this new study evaluates the impact of family structure on various aspects of children’s well-being. To complete their evaluation, the researchers pore over data collected between 1997 and 2013 from a nationally representative sample of 198,864 children up to the age of 17. The researchers measure the effect of family structure on 17 different outcomes, including global health, receipt of health care, and school attendance. In conducting their assessment, the researchers identify nine family structures: first, married-couple, cohabiting-couple, single-mother, and single-father households; second, all four of these with live-in grandparents; and finally, “skipped-generation households,” in which children live with their grandparents but with neither of their parents.

Not surprisingly, the overall analysis underscores the advantages children enjoy if they live with two married parents. Noting “important family structure disparities in multiple domains of child well-being,” the researchers conclude that, “in general, children in non-married couple families average worse outcomes than children in married-couple families.” Despite all of the optimistic theorizing that Americans have heard in recent decades about the exciting possibilities outside of traditional family forms, the researchers conclude that “all non-married couple family structures are associated with some adverse outcomes among children.”

The advantage children enjoy when living in a married-couple household stands out perhaps most clearly on the distinctively broad criterion of “global health”: “Compared to children in married couple families,” the researchers remark, “children in all other family structures have higher odds of having worse global health.” In statistical analysis, the advantage children in married-couple households enjoy is significant for comparison with all of the other eight types of family structure here evaluated (p < 0.01 for father-only households, p < 0.001 for all other non-married-couple household types).

The kind of advantage children enjoy by living in a married-couple family shows up again and again in this study. The researchers remark, for instance, that “living in any non-married couple family is associated with higher odds of having a learning disability or ADD/ADHD.” Except for children living in single-father households (with and without live-in grandparents) and in cohabiting-couple households with live-in grandparents, children in non-married couple households were also likely to miss significantly more days of school than children living in married-couple households.

Predictably, statistical analysis establishes that children living in various types of non-married-couple households are “not equally disadvantaged across all family structures.” Pointing to the two most common non-married-couple family structures, the researchers conclude that  “single-mother and extended single-mother families fare worse than children in married couple families for almost all of the outcomes examined.” The researchers reason that “single mothers are generally younger, lack the benefit of a second parent, and have less social support than caregivers in other family structures.”

However, the data clearly indicate that the problems of children experienced in single-mother households are not simply the result of the absence of the father. Compared to peers in married-couple families, “children in cohabiting couples have worse outcomes,” (regardless of whether their grandparents live in the same house). The data for children in cohabiting-couple households leaves only one plausible conclusion: “parents’ marital status matters” for children’s well-being. 

Though relatively few children live in single-father households (with or without live-in grandparents), these children appear “less disadvantaged than children in single mother or extended single-mother families,” perhaps because “single fathers are generally older and more likely to be previously married than single mothers.”

No one can doubt that many grandparents strive valiantly to help their grandchildren by filling in when their parents disappear. But the data in this study leave no doubt about the sobering truth: “children in skipped-generation families have worse health, schooling, and cognitive outcomes than children in married-couple families.”  

Even when grandparents try to help by sharing their home with a single parent or cohabiting couple, the results for the children involved appear far from optimal. After weighing the evidence, the researchers conclude that “the presence of grandparents in extended families does not mitigate the negative outcomes among children who live in single-parent or cohabiting families.”

Many progressive theorists will want to explain away all of the harm children suffer when parents separate or fail to marry as strictly an economic problem. And it is true that a number of the adverse outcomes associated with living in a non-married-couple family structure fall below the level of statistical significance when the researchers re-assess their data in a statistical model that adjusts for socioeconomic status (SES). But in the real world, statistical legerdemain cannot simply wipe away all of the many deficits in income and socioeconomic status that develop when parental marriages break or never form in the first place. Even if such socioeconomic deficits could be conjured out of existence, the authors of this new study conclude that “SES could only completely explain the association between family structure and anemia . . . . [M]any family-structure disparities remain” in even their most sophisticated statistical analysis. In other words, no plausible economic analysis can fully account for the sizable advantage children enjoy when they live in a married-couple family.

Progressives may scoff when conservatives affirm permanent parental marriage as a social ideal, dismissing this ideal as wildly unrealistic in twenty-first-century America. But this new study swells the body of empirical evidence indicating that what is truly unrealistic is hoping that anything but a renewal of that ideal will protect young people from the malign effects of parental separation and cohabitation.

(Patrick M. Krueger et al., “Family Structure and Multiple Domains of Child Well-Being in the United States: A Cross-Sectional Study,” Population Health Metrics 13 [2015]: 6, Web.)