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 

Stiffing the Stepchild

Four decades after progressive activists pushed through permissive divorce laws, promising happy outcomes for all, millions of Americans find themselves dealing with the sorry consequences of revolving-door marriages. Those consequences have been particularly malign for many of the stepchildren born into post-divorce melded families. Shedding new light on the challenges stepchildren face is a new study of the financial assistance parents give children—and stepchildren. It will probably surprise few stepchildren that this new study—completed by researchers at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Florida—concludes that parents open their wallets much more freely for children than for stepchildren.

Acutely aware of how “divorce and remarriage have reshaped the American family,” the Pennsylvania and Florida scholars embark on their inquiry into what “provision of financial help” reveals about “the place of stepchildren in remarried families.” That place is of more than merely theoretical interest to millions of American young people: recent data indicate that “nearly one in five children live with a stepparent at some point during childhood.”

To establish patterns of parental financial support for their children and stepchildren, the authors of the new study pore over data collected between 1996 and 2004 for individuals born between 1931 and 1941, “the first [generation] affected by changing marital patterns that have produced an increased number of blended families.” Overall, the data account for 14,544 resident and non-resident children age 18 or over associated with 3,812 familial households.

Analysis of these data reveals that parents in melded families vary considerably in their willingness to give financial assistance to children or stepchildren. Quite simply, the researchers conclude that “some parents give and others do not.”

However, the data also indicate that when parents do give financial assistance, “stepchildren are disadvantaged within families, particularly stepchildren of the wife.” 

This generalization comes into sharper focus in a statistical model for a representative melded family with four children. The researchers calculate a 33% probability that parents in such a household will financially support a shared biological daughter. In contrasting parallel calculations, the researchers find much lower probabilities of such parental money transfers for stepchildren who are the biological offspring of the mother in the home but not of the stepfather who is her husband. These markedly lower probabilities range from 17.3% to 24.6%, depending on the age of the stepchildren when their parents remarried. Even more striking, however, are the even lower probabilities of parent-to-child financial transfers benefiting stepchildren who are the biological offspring of the father in the home but not of his wife, their stepmother. For such stepchildren, the researchers calculate “probabilities of transfer receipt that are less than half of those of the [husband’s] stepchildren.”

In attempting to explain why children reared with a stepmother are even more disadvantaged than children reared with a stepfather, the researchers draw on sociobiological reasoning, invoking “the genetic argument that women are more concerned for their biological children—that is, they are more altruistic toward them—than are men.”

Given the frequency of divorce in recent decades, this study would seem to indicate that judges have shielded some of the children affected by these divorces from the worst outcomes by generally awarding custody to mothers and not fathers. Still, compared to children living with both biological parents, even stepchildren reared by a biological mother and a stepfather face a very significant disadvantage in receipt of financial support. Indeed, the researchers believe that their findings shed light on “the meaning and significance of family.” More particularly, these findings on the financial disadvantage experienced by stepchildren illuminate “the place of stepchildren in remarried families,” revealing “their marginality to the family” with troubling clarity.

Progressives never tire of reminding the nation of their laudable fight against any policy or practice relegating minorities to second-class citizenship. These progressives conveniently forget to mention how their crusade for permissive divorce laws has consigned millions of stepchildren to second-class status within their own families. 

(John C. Henretta, Matthew F. Van Voorhis, and Beth J. Soldo, “Parental Money Help to Children and Stepchildren,” Journal of Family Issues 35.9 [2014]: 1131-51.)