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 

Nontraditional Families and Children’s Educational Attainment in Uruguay

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Many American researchers have noted that growing up in a non-traditional family (i.e., one parent absent) is related to many kinds of negative outcomes for children, among which is educational attainment. Research on nontraditional family forms in other countries, however, has been lacking. In a new study, Alejandro Vid and Charles E. Stokes from the Universidad de Montevideo (Uruguay) and Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, respectively, seek to bridge the culture gap by looking at the relationship between children’s educational attainment and nontraditional family forms in Uruguay.

The researchers begin by pointing out that much of the existing research on nontraditional families has come from the developed world. Uruguay, in contrast, is notable for both rapid modernization “in terms of institutions—including family transition” and also for “an intriguingly high level of school drop-out, unusually high for Uruguay’s overall level of development.” “At the heart of the debate” about the association between family forms and children’s outcomes, the researchers write, “is the contention that family structure itself is not to blame for children’s school performance but rather that society fails to support alternative family forms, rendering them fraught with instability.”

With a sample of 6,402 children ages 9-16 from the Continuous Household Survey of 2006, the researchers used an instrumental variables approach and propensity score estimations to gauge the relationship between school achievement and family form while controlling for such potentially moderating factors as child’s age, disability, education of the head of the household, region, and household wealth.

The results of simple logistic regressions suggest that “being in a non-traditional family increases the probability of drop-out from school and of falling behind for both sons and daughters.” That effect was much higher for sons, however, and more complicated models indicated that for sons, “the impact of growing up in a non-traditional family was significantly different from zero for both the probability of drop-out and falling behind in school.” For girls, the effect was not significant. The researchers conclude by trying to account for the gender gap in boys’ and girls’ reactions to family disintegration. Prior research has indicated that both “[d]ifferential response to shocks” and “less attention from (single) mothers” have been shown to affect boys more than girls after family breakdown. The researchers also speculate that boys feel more pressured than girls to quit school for low-wage work to help support the family.

The researchers conclude by counseling policymakers to “pay special attention to the struggles that these children and their parents face in navigating the educational system.” Boys, they write, may need “greater incentives” to stay in school instead of taking outside work. Instead of pouring countless hours and large amounts of cash into patching a broken system, however, perhaps policymakers in Uruguay and America should focus on de-incentivizing divorce and encouraging marriage, a family form that has been proven to work.

(Alejandro Cid and Charles E. Stokes, “Family Structure and Children’s Education Outcome: Evidence from Uruguay,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 34 [2013]: 185-199)