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 

Children of Single Mothers Losing Out by Degrees

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

For many progressive theorists, Education is the solution to almost all social problems—or at least is a key item on a short list of solutions. So strong is progressives’ belief in Education that it entirely obliterates old-fashioned concerns about marriage and family solidarity. But progressives’ touchingly intense faith in Education looks like naïveté to anyone who cares about long-term social patterns. The importance of family structure in determining these long-term patterns emerges clearly in the findings of a study recently completed at Pennsylvania State University. Conducted by sociologist Molly A. Martin, this study finds that well-schooled married parents are decidedly more successful at fostering educational achievement among their children than are well-schooled single mothers.

To assess the effect of family structure on “intergenerational transmission of educational advantage,” Martin parses data collected in 1988 as part of the National Education Longitudinal Study. These data establish a clear pattern: “as parents’ education increases, children in single mother families experience a lower boost in their achievement test scores, likelihood of attending any post-secondary schooling, likelihood of completing a four-year college degree, and years of completed schooling relative to children living with both biological parents.” Particularly when looking at scores on math tests and at college-graduation rates, Martin sees strong statistical evidence indicating that higher parental education is more likely to translate into higher attainment for children in intact families than it is for peers from single-parent homes. As Martin explains, her findings mean that “among children with highly educated parents, children of single mothers are less likely to be highly educated themselves relative to children who grow up with both biological parents.”

In interpreting her findings, Martin relies on the social theorizing of James S. Coleman, who underscored the role of family structure in determining how well parents could transmit to their children their own social and cultural advantages. Following Coleman, Martin traces successful intergenerational transmission of such advantages back to “family social capital . . . defined as the strength of relations between a parent and child that results from parents’ physical presence and the support and attention parents provide.” Because intact two-parent families will command more of such capital, Coleman—and Martin—can only expect single parents to struggle in trying to confer on their children their own academic advantages. Martin’s empirical results thus align with Coleman’s view that “the most prominent element of structural deficiency in modern families is the single-parent family.”

As Martin puts it, “The results [of the study] largely support Coleman’s hypothesis that the number of co-residential parents is important for the transmission of parents’ socioeconomic resources for children’s human capital development.”

Martin recognizes that the findings of her study may not be good news in a social world in which “children’s family structures have dramatically transformed as marriage rates have declined and nonmarital fertility, cohabitation, and divorce rates have risen.” When “approximately one-half of children . . . are expected to live in a single-parent family at some point during their childhood,” informed Americans can only wonder how much good their parents’ educational accomplishments will do their children.

(Molly A. Martin, “Family Structure and the Intergenerational Transmission of Educational Advantage,” Social Science Research 41.1 [2012]: 33-47.)