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Father Absence and the Welfare of Children

By

Sara McLanahan

 


Introduction

Increases in divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing have dramatically altered the family life of American children. Whereas in the early 1960s, nearly 90 percent of all children lived with both of their biological parents until they reached adulthood, today less than half of children grow up with both natural parents. Nearly a third are born to unmarried parents, the majority of whom never live together, and another third are born to married parents who divorce before their child reaches adulthood. To further complicate matters, a substantial number of children are exposed to multiple marital disruptions and multiple father figures.

These changes have created tremendous uncertainty in children's lives and have led to considerable speculation among policy makers and the public more generally about the consequences of father absence. Some analysts argue that growing up with a single mother is the primary cause of many of the country's most serious social problems, including poverty, high school dropout, teen pregnancy, and delinquency (Popenoe, 1988, 1996; Whitehead, 1993; Blankenhorn, 1995). Others argue that poverty and economic insecurity are the real culprits, causing both father absence and adolescent behavioral problems (Skolnick, 1991; Stacy, 1993). Still others claim that the problems associated with family disruption are rooted in marital discord that begins long before the parents separate or divorce.

To bring empirical evidence to bear on this debate, my colleagues and I have been analyzing several large, nationally representative surveys that contain information on children's family structure growing up as well as their educational attainment and social adjustment in young adulthood. In this chapter, I summarize the major findings from this work as it pertains to the following questions:

  • Are children raised apart from their biological fathers worse off than children raised by both parents? How large are the differences and which groups of children are most affected?
  • What factors account for the lower achievement of children in one-parent families? What factors are associated with resilience? And finally,
  • Do differences in children's wellbeing predate family disruption or are they are a consequence of father absence?

Our investigation has been going on for over 10 years now and covers more than 10 data sets. The most important of these are the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), the High School and Beyond Study (HSB), and the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH). All of these surveys are large enough to allow us to distinguish among different types of single parent families, including families headed by never-married mothers as well as families headed by divorced or separated mothers and remarried mothers. These surveys also allow us to compare differences between boys and girls raised in one- and two-parent families as well as differences between children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and different social classes.1

To summarize briefly, we find that children who grow up apart from their biological fathers do less well, on average, than children who grow up with both natural parents. They are less likely to finish high school and attend college, less likely to find and keep a steady job, and more likely to become teen mothers. The differences are not huge. Indeed, most children who grow up with a single parent do quite well. Nor are they large enough to support the claim that father absence is the major cause of our country's most serious social problems. However, the differences between children in one- and two-parent families are not so small as to be inconsequential, and there is fairly good evidence that father absence per se is responsible for at least some of them.2

Why would this be so? Why would the loss of a biological father reduce a child’s chances of success? We argue that when fathers live apart from their child, they are less likely to share their incomes with the child, and, consequently, mothers and children usually experience a substantial decline in their standard of living when the father moves out. We estimate that as much as half of the disadvantage associated with father absence is due to the economic insecurity and instability. Another quarter is due to the loss of parental time and supervision, and the rest is probably due to a loss of social capital attributable in large measure to the higher incidence of residential mobility among single mothers and remarried mothers. Stated differently, if parents who decide to live apart were able to cushion their child from the economic instability and disruptions in neighborhood ties that often accompany the breakup of a family, and if single mothers were able to establish and maintain regular routines and effective systems of supervision, their children would likely do just as well as children raised in two-parent families. The problem is, these objectives are very difficult to achieve.

In the rest of the chapter, I flesh out these conclusions. I begin by describing some of the evidence on differences in educational attainment, labor market attachment, and family formation that my colleagues and I have uncovered in our analyses. Next, I discuss the major arguments for why father absence matters and present evidence relative to each of these claims. I end by discussing some of the implications of this research for parents, community leaders, and policy makers.

Assessing Differences in Achievement

What constitutes a successful passage from childhood to the adult world? My colleagues and I have focused on three salient factors that largely determine young people's prospects for becoming productive members of society: how far they go in school, whether they avoid early child-bearing, and how successful they are gaining a foothold in the work force. In all three instances, children growing up apart from their biological fathers fare significantly worse than children growing up with both parents.

School Achievement

A college education, and at the very least a high school degree, is more crucial than ever in our high-technology, high-skills work environment. The time when a young high school dropout could find a reasonably well-paying and secure job is long past. Increasingly, the same could be said for people without a college education. Ominously, the children of single and remarried parents are less likely to graduate from high school, just as they are less likely to earn a college degree.

To be sure, dropping out of high school is a relatively rare occurrence in this country. About 73 percent of American young people graduate. That proportion combined with the additional 12 percent who receive a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) means that only about 15 percent of American young people enter adulthood without a diploma. But while overall rates are low, a substantially higher proportion of children from father-absent households drop out of school than children from father-present families. After controlling for race, sex, mother's and father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence - all factors that predate father absence and influence educational success - my colleagues and I found that growing up with just one biological parent approximately doubles the risk of dropping out.

FIGURE 1

The risk of dropping out of high school.


figure1.JPG (29391 bytes)

SOURCES: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Panel Study of Income Dynamics, High School and Beyond Study, National Survey of Families and Households (1 = Cohort 1; 2 = Cohort 2; see text for a description of the two cohorts).
NOTE: One-parent families include stepfamilies. All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother's education, father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence. All differences from two-parent families are statistically significant.


Whether one sees the differences in figure 1 as large or small is partly a subjective issue. However, a consideration of what the dropout rate would be if all students lived with both biological parents is instructive. Using the NLSY survey, we find that the overall dropout rate for the country as a whole would fall from 19 percent to 13 percent if all children lived with both their biological parents and if all children had the same dropout rates as children currently living with both parents (The latter, by the way, is a very strong assumption.). Thus, father absence appears to account for about six percentage points or a third of the difference in the dropout rates between children from intact and non-intact families.

Most early theories about the effect of growing up without a father held that the consequences were more pronounced for boys, who supposedly were more dependent than girls on a male role model. However, our analysis of dropout rates suggest that father absence affects girls' educational achievement as much as it does boys'. The NLSY reveals an 18 percentage point difference between the dropout rates of girls from intact and non-intact families, as compared with a 15 percentage point difference for boys. The PSID finds an eleven percentage point difference for girls in contrast with a seven percentage point difference for boys.

TABLE 1

Racial, ethnic, and educational differences in the effect of family disruption on children.

 

High school dropout risk

Teen birth risk (women)

Idleness risk (men)

Child background Two-parent
Families

 

One-parent
Families

Two-parent Families

 

One-parent Families

Two-parent Families

 

One-parent Families

Average child            
White 11% 28% 8% 22% 10% 13%
Black 17 30 26 40 21 30
Hispanic 25 49 24 46 20 20
Advantaged child            
White 5 16 1 5 5 6
Black 4 8 6 11 9 14
Hispanic

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

NA

Disadvantaged child            
White

24

51

19

44

19

24

Black

23

40

29

45

24

33

Hispanic

29

53

24

46

19

19

Source: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

Note: One-parent families include steipfamilies. An advantaged child is defined as a child whose two parents have some college education. A disadvantaged child is defined as a child whose two parents have less than a high school degree. All numbers are adjusted for race, mother’s education, father’s education, number of siblings, and place of residence. NA = sample size too small to estimate.

What about race and ethnic differences? Are white children more or less affected by family disruption than black and Hispanic children? Black and Hispanic children come from less advantaged backgrounds than white children, and their underlying risk of dropping out of school (or experiencing other negative events) is greater than that of whites to begin with. Thus, we might expect the effect of family disruption to be greater on Blacks and Hispanics than on whites. On the other hand, since single motherhood is more common and perhaps better institutionalized in the African-American and Hispanic communities, we might expect the effect of family disruption on minority children to be smaller than the effect on white children.

In our analyses, the latter hypothesis dominates. Proportionally, father absence appears to hurt the educational success of white youth more than other racial and ethnic groups. Living without a father increases the risk of dropping out of school by 150 percent among Anglo children. In contrast, father absence increases the school failure risk among African Americans and Hispanics by 75 percent and 96 percent respectively. Remarkably, growing up without a father in the home appears to nullify the educational advantage of being white. Anglo children from one-parent households are significantly more likely to drop out than blacks from two-parent homes, and they are nearly as likely to experience school failure as blacks from similarly disrupted families.

How can we be sure that the differences in school achievement discussed above are really due to father absence per se and not to some other variable that is causing both family disruption and school failure? The answer is, short of running an experiment in which children are randomly assigned to intact and non-intact families, we can never be entirely certain. Researchers have used a variety of techniques to try and answer this difficult question, and, to date, their analyses suggests that at least some of the differences between children in one- and two-parent families is due to father absence per se (Sandefur and Wells, 1997; Haveman and Wolfe, 1994; Manski, Sandefur and McLanahan, 1992).

TABLE 2

Differences in high school performance of children raised in two-parent and one-parent families.

Family type Test score School attitude College expectations Grade-point average School attendance
Two-parent families  

2.62

 

80.4%

 

37.5%

 

4.13

 

9.83

One-parent families  

2.51

 

80.1

 

32.2

 

3.92

 

9.25

Source: High School and Beyond Study.

Note: See text for explanation of categories. One-parent families include stepfamilies. All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother’s education, father’s education, number of siblings, and place of residence.

While dropping out of high school represents the extreme of educational failure, a number of other indicators also shed light on the effects of father absence. Our examination of data from the High School and Beyond Study finds that students from two-parent families have higher grade point averages than students from one-parent families. They also have higher test scores, higher college expectations, and better school attendance records. Only in the case of school attitude is no difference apparent. To examine more deeply the effect of father absence on grades and attendance, we adjusted for standardized test scores and still found a difference between students from the two types of families. Thus, among equally talented youth, a student from a one-parent household has on average poorer attendance and grades than a student from a two-parent family. Not only does growing up without a father appear to affect aptitude, as captured by the lower test scores, it also seems to hurt motivation as well. (The poorer attendance rates are a red flag; absence from school often accompanies delinquency and other behavior problems.) Once we have ruled out differences in innate intellectual ability as the cause of diminished school performance, we are left to conclude that other factors associated with growing up in a single-parent home - such as parental supervision and emotional issues - are at work.

FIGURE 2

The likelihood of college enrollment and graduation.


figure 2.JPG (30343 bytes)

SOURCES: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Panel Study of Income Dynamics, High School and Beyond Study, National Survey of Families and Households (1 = Cohort 1; 2 = Cohort 2; see text for a description of the two cohorts).
NOTE: One-parent families include stepfamilies. The number at the top of each bar represents the percentage of high school graduates that enrolled in college. The number near the middle represents the percentage of high school graduates that graduated from college. College graduation data are not available for HSB. All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother's education, father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence. All differences from two-parent families are statistically significant except the PSID.


With respect to college enrollment and graduation, the pattern is the same; students from one-parent homes again do less well. All five of our data sets find differences, ranging from a few percentage points to 20 points, even after adjusting for family background characteristics that predate divorce and are likely to affect college success. Here, as with the high school dropout rates, the effect of father absence varies by race, sex, and economic circumstances in illuminating ways. Anglo children from advantaged backgrounds have college graduation rates nine percentage points lower if their parents live apart. The effect appears even stronger with respect to women; young women from advantaged but disrupted families have graduation rates 12 percentage points lower than their peers from intact families. For young men, the equivalent difference is only 4 percentage points. The sex difference in college graduation is in addition to the sex difference in high school graduation that we reported earlier, since we only examine college graduation for young people who finished high school. The fact the young women from advantaged families are more affected by family disruption could be due to their higher risk of having a teen birth or to their differential access to financial support, from parents, schools, or employers.

Labor Market Detachment

As telling as school achievement is to success, or lack thereof, young people’s experience as they attempt to gain a footing in the working world are also important. A person who forgoes college may nevertheless begin building economic security and skills through steady employment. Most young men - roughly 85 percent, according to the NLSY - are either working or in school in their late teens and early twenties. Depending on how it is defined, the proportion of young men who are "detached," i.e. neither working or not in school, may be as high as 25 percent according to the other data sets.

FIGURE 3

The risk of being out of school and out of work.


figure3.JPG (33500 bytes)

SOURCES: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Panel Study of Income Dynamics, High School and Beyond Study.
Note: One-parent families include stepfamilies. All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother's education, father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence. All differences from two-parent families are statistically significant.


Most important for our purposes is that, regardless of which survey we look at, young men from one-parent families are about 1.5 times as likely to be out of school and out of work as young men from two-parent homes. Even when we control for high school dropout rates, we find the same difference in detachment between young men from one- and two-parent homes. Thus, it appears that growing up apart from one's father hurts not only a young man's hopes for educational success, but also his chances of making a permanent attachment to the labor force.

As we did in our analysis of dropout rates, we controlled for test scores to make sure that the lower success rate of young men from one-parent homes was not due to inferior innate ability. Our analysis indicated that it clearly was not. The variation in test scores accounted for only about 20 percent of the higher incidence of detachment among males with disrupted families, suggesting that factors other than talent are the more significant cause. Most likely, these are the same factors - parental guidance and encouragement and the emotional strain caused by family dislocation - that we suspect are behind the higher rates of school failure.

Confirming the belief that growing up in a non-intact family hurts employment prospects, we find that the higher rates of detachment continue deeper into adulthood. By the time they are between 23 and 26 years old, the young men in the NLSY survey with disrupted family backgrounds are still more likely to be out of school and out of work than their peers who grew up in two-parent homes.

The greater incidence of detachment is not exclusive to the men with one-parent backgrounds. The effect of father absence is also apparent in the indicators of young women, which is found in higher proportions among those with disrupted families than those from intact households. Detachment rates overall are higher among young women than men, in large measure because of the different cultural expectations placed upon females and the fact that many young women are full-time mothers.

As they do with school failure, race and economic background influence the effect of father absence on labor market success. Whereas Anglo children seem most affected when we examine dropout rates, our analysis of detachment shows that African American children experience the larger effect. According to the NLSY data, being raised in a one-parent home increases the incidence of idleness by about 30 percent for Anglo children, whereas for black children, it increases the incidence by about 40 percent. In the case of Hispanics, however, growing up in a non-intact family appears to have little effect on labor force detachment.

Early Family-Formation

Another good predictor of education and economic success is early family-formation; the younger the age at which a young woman becomes a mother, the less likely is she to succeed in school and achieve economic security. Adolescent females who become mothers receive less education overall and are more likely to be poor in adulthood (and to be on welfare) than young women who delay their first birth until they are in their twenties.4 To the extent that the daughters of single or remarried parents become young mothers, we could expect them to face greater odds against their success in school and the job market.

FIGURE 4

The risk of teen births for women.


figure4.JPG (31743 bytes)

SOURCES: National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Panel Study of Income Dynamics, High School and Beyond Study, National Survey of Families and Households (1 = Cohort 1; 2 = Cohort 2; see text for a description of the two cohorts).
NOTE: One-parent families include stepfamilies. The number at the top of each bar represents the percentage of women who had a teen birth. The number near the middle of each bar represents the percentage of women who had a teen marital birth. All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother's education, father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence. All differences from two-parent families are statistically significant except for teen nonmarital births in NSFH2.


About 20 percent of the young women in our samples gave birth before age twenty. The proportion, however, was much higher among women from non-intact families. The figures, which include both married and unmarried women, are roughly the same in all four data sets. The exception is the High School and Beyond Study, which finds rates of 19 percent and 14 percent, respectively. (The HSB does not include young women who dropped out of school before their sophomore year, which may account for its lower percentages of teen mothers.) Notice that Anglo women are not immune from the effect of father absence where early child-bearing is concerned. Those from disrupted families are about five times as likely as their peers from two-parent homes to become a teenage mother.

Race seems to be a factor in the incidence of early child-bearing among offspring of single parents just as it does with school failure. The effect of father absence is proportionately greater among Anglos, though overall rates of teenage mothering are lower. According to NLSY data, white females from a disrupted family have a 14 percentage point greater risk of becoming a teen mother than white females from two-parent families (22 percent, as compared with 8 percent). For blacks, the figures are 40 percent and 26 percent, respectively; and for Hispanics, they are 46 percent and 24 percent. Favorable economic circumstances heighten the odds against early child-bearing for both blacks and whites, yet being from a non-intact family still increases the risk for both racial groups. For advantaged whites, the risk is 5 times greater for those with family disruption; for advantaged blacks, it is twice as high.

Variation Among Different Types of Nonintact Families

The disadvantage associated with growing up apart from one's biological father cuts across the different forms of disrupted families; it exists for children who live with divorced single mothers, for those whose mothers have never married, and for those in stepfamilies. However, a closer analysis suggests that the offspring of one type of single-parent household fare considerably better. Children who lose a parent to death experience outcomes much closer to those of children from intact families.

FIGURE 5

Is the cause of family disruption related to child well-being?


figure5.JPG (28527 bytes)

SOURCE: National Survey of Families and Households, Cohort 1.
NOTE: All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother's education, father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence. Dropout = no high school diploma.


Dividing the children of the NSFH into four groups - those with no family disruption, those who lost a parent to death, those whose parents divorced, and those born to never-married mothers - we find significant differences in educational outcomes. Those whose mothers divorced or never married clearly suffer the most negative effects. Adjusting for the factors that predate father absence and are known to influence school failure, we find that children in these two categories are several times more likely to drop out of school than their peers with intact families. The dropout risk is 37 percent for those with never-married mothers and 31 percent for those with divorced parents, in contrast with the 13 percent risk of those from families with no disruption. Significantly, the risk for children who lost a parent to death is 15 percent, virtually the same as that for children from intact homes. Clearly, children of a widowed mother enjoy economic and other advantages over their peers from households headed by divorced or never-married parents.

With early child-bearing, like educational outcomes, the circumstances of family disruption can make a difference. In our analysis of the NSFH data, we find that young women who lost a parent to death are significantly less likely to become teen mothers than women whose parents divorced -- 21 percent for the former, in contrast with 33 percent for the latter. However, as we found with educational outcomes, the difference between young women born out of wedlock and those from divorced families is small and not statistically significant.

TABLE 3

Do the timing and duration of family disruption make a difference in child well-being?

 

Condition

High school dropout risk

Teen birth risk (women)

Child’s age at first disruption    
0-5 33% 35%
6-11 29 30
12+ 27 28
Years in a one-parent family    
More than 5 29 30
Fewer than 5 33 33

Number of disruptions

   
1 or fewer 31 33
2 or more 32 33

Remarriage

   
No 31 30
Yes 30 33
Source: National Survey of Families and Households, Cohort 1.

Note: Sample includes only children from one-parent families. Estimates are based on separate models for each set of predictor variables: age at first disruption, years in a one-parent family, number of disruptions, remarriage. None of the differences are statistically significant.

But while the nature of a family disruption in some circumstances does influence the effect of father absence, our analysis of the data suggests that the timing of the disruption does not matter. This may contradict prevalent Freudian-influenced theories that point to early childhood as a critical period for a child's long-term emotional and mental health. But we believe that adolescence is a period that also calls for a tremendous amount of parental guidance. Besides the obvious stresses that accompany an adolescent's physical maturation, it is a period given to impulsive behavior with serious consequences. A younger person going through her parents' divorce may act out by fighting with friends or siblings, whereas an adolescent may express her negative feelings by becoming sexually active (and perhaps pregnant), taking drugs, or neglecting school, with possible consequences for her college and long-term economic prospects. Older children, in our view, are no more likely to come out of a family disruption unscathed than younger ones. Similarly, a child who appears to have adjusted to a divorce in early childhood may exhibit behavioral problems during adolescence.

How long a child lives in a one-parent home does not appear to influence the degree of damage caused by father absence either. Our analysis of the NSFH finds that children who live with a single parent for less than five years have the same dropout rate as those who have lived in similar circumstances for more than five years. Nearly half of all children with single mothers end up spending at least a portion of their childhood living with a stepfather, according to research by Larry Bumpass and James Sweet (1989). Does being in a stepfamily mitigate the effect of father absence on children? According to our studies, remarriage neither helps nor hurts the child's chances for school success or avoiding a teen birth. [We should note that in some of our analyses, living with a stepfather increases a boy’s chances of finishing high school, especially among African America males.] The fact of father absence, in sum, matters much more than the circumstances (except when the single parent is a widow or widower, as discussed above).

Why Father Absence Matters

Father absence clearly diminishes a child's prospects for success in adult life. But why does growing up with a single parent heighten one's risk of school failure, detachment from the labor force, and early child-bearing? What is it about a one-parent home that makes it harder for children to make their way in the world?

Economic Instability

The first answer-and the biggest part-is money. It is a simple fact that the one-parent household, which is typically headed by a divorced or never-married mother, has significantly fewer financial resources than an intact family and reduced access to all the advantages money can buy. Consider poverty statistics: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately half of households headed by single mothers in 1995 were below the poverty line, in contrast with the 10 percent figure for two-parent households. To be sure, many of these families were poor before divorce, and a significant proportion were headed by mothers who never married. Nevertheless, the lack of a father's income has dire consequences for household finances.

Even in well-off families, income loss exerts a powerful negative force on children's wellbeing. Non-poor families lose, on average, roughly 50 percent of their income when parents separate. That may force a mother to enter the labor force prematurely, or work more hours, to the detriment of her ability to nurture and supervise her children. It may also force a move to more affordable housing, which, as we will explore later, has other negative consequences for children.

Economies of scale are a big part of the reason that family disruption leads almost inevitably to financial disadvantage for children. It is simply more expensive for a once-intact family unit to spread out over two households than it is to stay in one. What's worse, the newly established household -- the one typically headed by the principal bread-winner, the father-tends to receive a disproportionate share of the now-divided resources. This, despite the fact that the original household usually has the lion's share of the people. Not surprisingly, the economic status of the divorced mother usually goes down after the family disruption, while that of the non-resident father goes up.

Inadequate child support is perhaps the biggest culprit in this inequitable distribution of funds. Child-support standards and enforcement vary widely across the country, meaning two fathers with similar financial situations may end up paying dramatically different levels of support, depending on where they reside. Because of often-toothless enforcement, some fathers pay nothing at all (Garkinkel, McLanahan and Robins, 1994; Hanson, Garfinkel, McLanahan and Miller, 1996).5

Another factor is the diminished emotional attachment that often goes with separation from one's children. Fathers who don't see their children on a day-to-day basis can lose touch with their needs and lose interest in their well-being. In this instance, absence clearly does not make the heart grow fonder. With a weaker feeling toward his children-and new commitments, perhaps, to a second wife and stepchildren-a non-resident father may feel less compelled to provide financial support to his original household. A nonresident father also may balk because the child support must necessarily be funneled through the children's mother, whom he may distrust or dislike. Even the children of never-married mothers lose economically; they grow up without the economic advantages that a father's income would have provided (Seltzer, McLanahan and Hanson, forthcoming).

The lack of money affects children's wellbeing, first and foremost, by limiting the quality of education to which they have access. Families with higher incomes can afford to live in neighborhoods with better public schools or send their children to private schools if they wish. Also, non-resident fathers are less likely to support their children's college education than resident fathers. The knowledge that they cannot count on their father's support for college may discourage many children from pursuing higher education, which in turn, may affect their high school performance.

Our examination of the four primary data sets indeed bears out these suspected consequences of father absence and its negative effect on children's financial resources. In fact, our analyses suggest that the economic instability accounts for roughly half of the disadvantage associated with growing up in a one-parent home. This finding may be particularly relevant to government policy-makers, since income is an issue over which public policy has some influence.

TABLE 4

Median income of two-parent families, single-parent families, and stepfamilies, by race and by mother’s education (in 1992 dollars)

 

Race and education

Two-parent families

Singe-parent families

Stepfamilies

All families

$61,135

$27,065

$54,594

Whites

$63,270

$31,349

$55,360

Blacks

$39,061

$20,105

$49,692

Less than a high school degree

$43,693

$22,305

$39,234

High school degree only

$63,071

$30,297

$57,945

Some college education

$83,748

$37,745

$71,220

Source: Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

Note: Income measured at age 16.

Using data from the PSID to compare the income of intact families, single-parent families, and stepfamilies, we find, not surprisingly, that two-parent families earn on average more than the other two types of families. In 1992 dollars, the median income of two-parent families is more than $60,000, as compared with $54,594 for stepfamilies and $27,065 for single-parent families. (The families surveyed in the PSID have at least one adolescent child, which explains the overall high levels of the incomes; these are families headed by parents who are near the peak of their earning power.) We see a similar phenomenon when we analyze the poverty rates of the different types of families. Two-parent families have the lowest rate -- 5.3 percent-followed by stepfamilies (8.7 percent) and single-parent families (26.5 percent).

The connection between single parenthood and poverty is particularly strong among blacks. Nearly half of black households headed by a single parent are below the poverty line, in contrast with a 19.3 percent rate for two-parent black families. Among whites, the proportions are a less dramatic 13.6 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively.

As mentioned before, many of the poor one-parent households were poor even before the family disruption. Is it possible that the economic circumstances are the cause, rather than the result, of the separation or divorce? To explore this, we used the PSID data to look at children who lived with both parents at age 12. Then, we sorted them into two groups: those whose parents separated or divorced by the time the child reached 17, and those whose parents were still together at that same point.

TABLE 5

Median family income at ages twelve and seventeen for children in stable and unstable families, by race and by mothers’ education (in 1992 dollars).

Race, education, and family type

Age 12

Age 17

All    
Stable families

$59,741

$64,789

Unstable families

$55,864

$33,509

Whites    
Stable families

$61,559

$66,696

Unstable families

$62,367

$36,662

Blacks    
Stable families

$39,040

$40,934

Unstable families

$28,197

$18,894

Less than high school education    
Stable families

$42,659

$45,512

Unstable families

$44,293

$27,821

High school education    
Stable families

$61,858

$65,798

Unstable families

$60,725

$37,290

Some college education    
Stable families

$80,191

$91,766

Unstable families

$73,833

$38,082

Source: Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

Note: Stable families are defined as those in which the parents did not separate or divorce during the child’s adolescence (ages 12-17); unstable families are defined as those in which the parents separated or divorced.

By this method, we find that family disruption during adolescence does lead to a loss of household income, regardless of the racial and educational backgrounds of the families. Over the five-year period we examined, the median family income of stable families (again in 1992 dollars) rose by roughly $5,000, from $59,741 to $64,789, while the unstable families experienced a decline from $55,864 to $33,509.

With respect to whites, the figures point convincingly toward a conclusion that disruption is a cause, rather than a consequence, of lower income. The unstable families actually had slightly higher average incomes than the stable families -- $62,367, in contrast with $61,559 -- when the child was 12. By the time the children in the sample were 17, the unstable families were earning roughly $30,000 less than the stable families. In the case of blacks, however, the findings are more ambiguous. Stable families were earning nearly $11,000 more ($39,040, as compared with $28,197) when the child was 12, suggesting pre-existing economic difficulty among the families that would later be disrupted. By the time the children were 17, the average income of the intact family had risen to $40,934, while the income of the unstable families had dropped to $18,894.

I have demonstrated that father absence is associated with poorer outcomes for children; I next explore the extent to which the income loss associated with family disruption is responsible for phenomena such as school failure and early child-bearing. To accomplish this, I compare the wellbeing of children from disrupted and intact families before and after taking income into account. Here, I separate single-mother and stepparent families in order to get a clearer picture of the effect of income.

FIGURE 6

Does income account for the difference in child well-being?


figure6.JPG (42835 bytes)

SOURCE: Panel Study of Income Dynamics.
NOTE: All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother's education, father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence. Income is measured at age 16.


Notice that before controlling for income, there is a six percentage point difference in the high school dropout risk of children from one and two-parent homes. After income is taken into account, the difference is just three percentage points. For the teen birth risk, income appears to account for more than half of the difference between stable and unstable families. Controlling for income makes little difference in the case of stepfamilies, whose incomes are nearly identical to those of intact families.

FIGURE 7

Does a change in income account for the difference
in child well-being?


figure7.JPG (39346 bytes)

SOURCE: Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

NOTE: Stable families are defined as those that did not experience a separation or divorce during child's adolescence (age 12-17); unstable families are defined as those that did experience a separation or divorce. All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother's education, father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence. Changes in income are measured between ages 12 and 17.


To confirm our suspicion that the income effect was a consequence rather than a cause of family disruption, we used the PSID data to examine the effect of income before and after divorce. After adjusting for differences in family income at age 12 did not "explain" the higher risk of school failure, early child-bearing, and detachment faced by children of unstable families. But when we take changes in income between 12 and 17 into account, the difference between stable and unstable families is reduced by half. These findings make clear that the income loss caused by family disruption, specifically, plays a vital role in the diminished outcomes of children from single-parent homes.

The evidence presented above—that income explains many the problems associated with divorce and single parenthood—is not consistent across different data sets. Income effects, for example, are much larger when we use the PSID data than when we use the NLSY or the NSFH surveys. Moreover, the effects of income often differ, according to the particular outcome being examined. These inconsistencies are due to several factors. First, income effects are sensitive to how well income is measured. If the measure is poor, the effect of any variable will be attenuated. Indeed, much of the difference in findings between the large, nationally representative surveys and the smaller, observational studies is probably due to the fact that the former do a better job of measuring variables like income, whereas the latter do a better job of measuring variables such as parenting practices and stress.

Second, income effects depend on the amount of variation in the sample. Analyses of families that fall within a narrow income range will always yield smaller income effects than analyses of samples that include the very rich and very poor. Finally, income effects depend on the indicator of child wellbeing that is being examined. In a recent review of thirteen articles comparing the effects of income and family structure on child outcomes, I found that poverty (and economic status) had stronger effects on cognitive and educational outcomes than on emotional and social adjustment (McLanahan, 1997).

Parenting Skills and Resources

If income is only half the story, what other factors account for the different success rates of children from intact and non-intact families? This question is particularly relevant for understanding stepfamilies, who don't appear to suffer the same income disadvantage as families headed by a single mother.

An important part of the answer is the loss of parental resources that occurs when a child's father lives in a separate household. Children clearly need their parents to read to them, discuss problems, help with homework, and give discipline and supervision. In a father-absent family, there is usually much less parenting to go around. Under such circumstances, the father is certain to see his children less. The effects of the physical separation can be magnified by the bitter feelings of the children, who often blame the father for abandoning the family, even if the mother instigated the split-up.

The separation can also affect children's relationship with their mother. Forced to play two roles-that of father and mother both -- single mothers experience stress and often depression, which can adversely affect their parenting. With their time, energy, and spirit stretched, some single mothers become too lenient; others, too rigid or strict. Lost, too, is the system of checks and balances that helps keep a two-parent household running effectively. Without another parent in the household to consult, and to ensure that she "does the right thing," a single mother may exhibit uneven or inconsistent parenting behavior.

The quality of the parenting is often lower still when the mother remarries. For a child, who has already suffered through the parents' divorce, the appearance of a new stepparent can amount to yet another disruption. With another change in the personnel can come new rules, new roles, and new confusion. Where a child's wellbeing is concerned, a stepparent is no substitute for the departed real parent. With a reduced commitment to the child, the stepparent is not likely to be as effective a check on the mother's behavior as the biological father. Nor does the presence of a stepfather ensure that the mother will have more time and energy for parenting; indeed, he may even compete with the children for the mother's time and attention, leaving the mother more stretched than ever. Competition between stepfathers and their new children may be even more stressful for girls than for boys since the former have served as the mother’s "confidant" after the divorce or separation. There is also evidence that the sexual relationship between the stepfather and mother may increase the daughter’s risk of become sexually active at an early age.

Conflict between the biological parents is another important factor in the difficulties experienced by children of divorce (Emery, 1982). It is well known that children in high-conflict families have more problems than those in low-conflict homes. As with income, it is important to separate cause from effect. The conflict between the mother and father is often not the result of family instability so much as it is the cause. If alcoholism, addiction, or abuse is at the heart of the conflict, parental resources are lost regardless of a separation or divorce. In that instance, the departure of the addicted or violent parent may be in the best interest of the children.

We would note, however, that the degree and nature of the conflict bears consideration; not all divorces are caused by something as dramatic as addiction or violence. What if one parent abandons the marriage because he or she feels unfulfilled, or falls in love with someone else? Even if the parents' relationship is less than perfect, the presence of both parents in the household may well be better for the children than a divorce or separation. Our analysis of the NSFH data, confirms our suspicion that parental conflict does not account for much of the lower attainment of children in father absent families (Hanson, 1996). Although high conflict is negatively related to child wellbeing, the effects of conflict are not especially large. Nor does family disruption appear to resolve the problems of children in high conflict families. Many of these children continue to experience conflict after divorce. (Hanson, McLanahan, and Thomson, 1996). More importantly, a substantial proportion of parents who divorce do not report high levels of conflict prior to separation. Thus, although pre-divorce conflict may be an important factor for some children, it is not a major part of the story for the average child who experiences a divorce.

The empirical evidence also bears out our theories about the deficits of parental time and contact available to children whose parents have separated or divorced. Single mothers and remarried mothers, not surprisingly, are less likely to eat with their children than married mothers. On the other hand, single mothers appeared to compensate for the missed dinners by reading to their children more than their married peers.

The group of parents least involved are remarried divorced mothers, who both read less and eat fewer meals with their children. While this appears to support our theory that stepparents diminish, rather than enhance, parental resources, the picture is more complex. When we add in the time children spend with the stepparent, the parental resources available to children of remarried mothers surpasses that of children with single mothers. In a small number of stepfamilies, the children may enjoy access to more parental resources than their counterparts from two-parent homes; this may be so if they maintain significant contact with the departed father and have a good relationship with the new stepfather.

TABLE 6

Parental supervision (measured by percentage of mothers answering yes).

 

Question put to mother

Two-parent family

Mother and stepfather

Mother and partner

Divorced mother

Never-married mother

Child never left alone? 31.1% 28.1% 20.4% 25.5% 19.3%
Know child’s whereabouts? 88.3 89.1 86.8 87.3 88.8
Child has curfew? 9.1 9.2 9.0 9.1 9.0
Child has bedtime? 8.8 8.7 8.8 8.7 8.7
Child has TV rules? 35.9 32.2 19.4 31.9 29.6
Child has chores? 50.9 55.1 48.1 51.9 44.4
Source: E. Thomson, S.S. McLanahan, and R.B. Curtin, "Family Structure, Gender, and Parental Socialization," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54 (May 1992): 368-378. Results are based on data from the National Survey of Families and Households, 1987.

Note: All numbers are adjusted for sex, race, mother’s education, father’s education, number of siblings, and place of residence.

Another measure of parents' authority is the degree to which they know their children's whereabouts, whether they leave them home alone, whether they establish a curfew, and whether they set rules for television-watching, bedtime, and household chores. The survey results demonstrate that single mothers exercise less control over their children than their still-married peers; the difference is particularly great when we compare married mothers, on the one hand, with never-married mothers and mothers with a live-in partner, on the other. More than 30 percent of two-parent families report never leaving a child home alone, in contrast with 20.4 percent of mothers with partners and 19.3 percent of never-married mothers. Re-married mothers, interestingly, report about the same level of supervision as mothers in two-parent families.

While it is clear that parental resources are diminished in disrupted families, we have yet to explore whether the lower levels of parental involvement and control might pre-date the family disruption. To explore that question, we compare two sets of students from the High School and Beyond Study. Both groups lived in intact families in their sophomore years; the families in the first group were still intact by the senior year, while those in the second group had experienced divorce or separation.

TABLE 7

Change in parental involvement, supervision, and aspirations between the sophomore and senior years.

Family Type

Mother’s involvement

Father’s involvement

Parental supervision

Talks with child

Parental aspirations

Stable families

 

-1

 

-1

 

-2

 

-10

 

4

Unstable families

 

-10

 

-19

 

-13

 

-20

 

-2

Source: High School and Beyond Study.

Note: Stable families are defined as those in which the parents did not separate or divorce between the sophomore and senior years; unstable families are defined as those in which the parents separated or divorced.

We would expect some decrease in involvement in either case, due simply to the children's maturation. But we find that the decline is substantially greater with disrupted families. Moreover, we find that parental aspirations for their children—an important determinant of their success in achieving a college education and career—increase between the sophomore and senior year in the case of intact families, whereas they decline in disrupted families. These results demonstrate that the disruption itself plays a significant role in the loss of parental involvement associated with family disruption.

Finally, can we establish that the changes in parenting that accompany divorce and separation are a factor in the children's wellbeing? As we did with income, we re-analyze the survey data before and after adjusting for parental involvement, supervision, and aspirations.

FIGURE 8

Does parenting behavior account for the difference
in child well-being?


figure8.JPG (49273 bytes)

SOURCE: High School and Beyond Study.
NOTE: All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother's education, father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence. Parenting is measured during sophomore year.


As we see in figure 13, children in single-parent and two-parent homes have a six percentage point baseline difference before we adjust for the parental resources; after adjusting for resource differences, the gap falls to three percentage points. Thus, these parenting factors appear to account for roughly half of the higher dropout rate observed among the children of single-parent homes. With teen birth risk, accounting for parental resources changes the baseline difference by only one percentage point. However, in the case of detachment from the labor force, adjusting for parental resources completely eliminates the gap. (When we employ the same statistical technique with stepfamilies, we do not find the same dramatic effect when we adjust for the parenting factors, suggesting that differences in parental resources do not play as prominent a role for children in stepfamilies as they do for children living with single mothers.)

Community Resources

Access to community resources-the web of facilities, programs, people, and care-providers that can supplement and support parents' efforts-is significantly diminished for children in disrupted families. The loss of income that typically accompanies divorce and separation restricts the ability of many families to live in communities with an abundance of this social capital. So too can the absence of one parent reduce a child's chance to connect with the resources that do exist.

The longer parents reside in the same community, the more likely they are to know about and take advantage of opportunities for their children. Family disruptions often lead to residential moves, which usually mean adjustments to new communities and the loss of ties with former neighbors. Even if they haven't moved, children may lose access to people and other resources with whom their non-custodial parent was connected after a divorce. Children can even be cut off from the custodial parent's network; to the extent she is stressed and depressed, the mother may not have the time or energy to maintain those old relationships that she once had (Coleman, 1988).

The loss of social capital can have obvious and deleterious effects on a child's education. An intact family that has been in the same community for a number of years learns about the best educational resources. The parents are more likely to know about after-school programs and the names of the best teachers, and they are more likely to have the connections and influence to access resources for which demand is high and supply limited. The children in such a family could be expected to get a better education than those in a family that is new to the community.

Social capital can also be an important factor in a child's success landing a first job. Children in one-parent homes are more likely to live in poorer communities with fewer employment opportunities. In addition, a father might have valuable information about jobs and connections with the people who can give them; a child living apart from his father may be at a considerable disadvantage.

TABLE 8

Characteristics of census tracts where children live, by race and by family structure.

 

 

 

Race and family type

Poverty rate of census tract

Percent of female-headed families in census tract

AFDC rate of census tract

Jobless father rate of census tract

Percent of vacant buildings in census tract

High school dropout rate of census tract

 

Whites

           
Two-parent families 8.7% 12.2% 5.9% 30.0% 5.0% 9.9%
One-parent families 11.0 16.3 7.5 30.4 6.6 12.5

Blacks

           
Two-parent families 23.8 30.1 16.8 39.9 8.3 17.4
One-parent families 26.0 36.5 20.6 41.8 9.0 19.5
Source: Panel Study of Income Dynamics, census tract data, characteristics file.

Note: In this table, stepfamilies are combined with two-parent families.

An examination of the data indicates that race is a more potent factor than family structure in determining the type of community in which a child resides. Nevertheless, our examination of census tract data in the PSID shows that, on average, white children from single-parent families live in neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty, welfare use, school failure, and female-headed households than white children in two-parent families. According to one of our data sets, the High School and Beyond Study, children in stepfamilies and single-parent families attend poorer schools-schools with higher dropout rates and student behavior problems-than their peers from intact families. The NLSY data leads in a slightly different direction; in that data set, children with single parents, but not those in stepfamilies, are found to attend lower quality schools.

The level of resources that exist in a community is only part of the equation; knowing about them and accessing them depends to some degree on the length of time a family has lived in the same community. As discussed previously, disrupted families are often mobile families. The evidence confirms that one-parent families indeed do move more frequently than intact families, and stepfamilies still more. In the PSID data, we find that single-parent families move nearly twice as often as intact families, and stepfamilies move nearly three times as much.

The data also give us some idea of the reasons behind the relocation. If a family moves to pursue a better job, the benefits may outweigh the disadvantages. However, if a newly divorced mother moves to less expensive housing because of her reduced means, the negatives are almost certain to outweigh any positives. This latter type of move, which we call "involuntary," is much more common among single-mother households than two-parent families and stepfamilies. Thirty-four percent of single mothers' moves fall into this category, according to the PSID data, more than double the proportion we find for intact families and stepfamilies. Just 6 percent of single mothers' moves were for productive reasons—a better job—in contrast with 21 percent of intact families' moves.

As demonstrated above, children in disrupted families tend to live in communities with inferior resources, and they are also less likely to have the connections that will help them access the resources that are available. How significant a factor is this disadvantage in determining their wellbeing?

 

FIGURE 9

Do community resources and parental behavior account for the difference in child well-being?


figure9.jpg (67979 bytes)
 

SOURCE: High School and Beyond Study.
NOTE: All numbers are adjusted for race, sex, mother's education, father's education, number of siblings, and place of residence. School quality and parenting are measured in the sophomore year. Residential mobility is measured from grade 5 to grade 10.


We find that the effect is particularly important with respect to stepfamilies, accounting for about 40 percent of the higher school failure rates we observe among children in that category. Using data from the High School and Beyond Study, we find a five percentage point difference between the graduation rates of children in stepfamilies and their peers in two-parent homes. However, when we adjust for school quality and residential mobility, the difference falls to three percentage points. Applying the same technique to the higher school failure rates of children with single parents who have not remarried, we do not find social capital exerting the same effect. For those children, income and parenting resources remain the most important factors. We attribute the findings for stepfamilies to the greater residential mobility of these households and to the disruption in parents’ and children’s social capital associated with a move. Although one of our data sets indicated that children in stepfamilies attended lower quality schools, another did not. In contrast, all of the data show much higher residential mobility among children in stepfamilies.

Conclusions and Implications

Growing up with a single parent harms children for three primary reasons: A disrupted family usually has fewer financial resources to devote to children's upbringing and education, less time and energy to nurture and supervise children, and reduced access to community resources that can supplement and support parents' efforts. Fortunately, none of these factors are beyond the control of parents and society. Thus, to the extent that parents and government can address these risk factors, the effect of father absence on children's wellbeing could be significantly softened.

The first and most obvious factor that can and should be addressed is to protect children from the economic insecurity that accompanies father absence. Doing so will require a commitment of both public and private resources. With respect to the latter, we are in the midst of a revolution in child support enforcement policy. During the past two decades, several major pieces of federal legislation have been passed that call for increasing the proportion of children with a child support award, standardizing award levels, and collecting obligations more efficiently. Paternity establishment rates have more than tripled in the last decade, and the proportion of mothers receiving child support payments has gone up substantially

Stronger child support enforcement may also redress the other two factors that determine children's resilience in the face of family disruption: the loss of parental resources and the loss of community. Fathers who are required to pay child support are likely to demand more time with their children and a greater say in how they are raised. Such demands should lead to more social capital between the father and child. Similarly, greater father involvement is likely to lead to less residential mobility, retarding the loss of social capital in the community. Although at face value, these new policies appear to benefit children, they may come with a cost for mothers in terms of their freedom to raise their child as they see fit, and to relocate to another city or state. The new policies may also have costs for fathers and their new families; and in families with a history of abuse, they may even harm some children. The agenda for the next generation of empirical studies is set. How will the new child support policies affect fathers, mothers and children? Who will benefit and who will suffer? How large are the different effects and what can be done to mitigate the negative consequences? At this point our ability to answer these questions is limited. Yet the answers will have profound effects on the wellbeing of families and children. (See Garfinkel, McLanahan, Meyer, and Seltzer, forthcoming).

With respect to the public responsibility, we are currently in the midst of a giant experiment involving the economic security and stability of single mothers and their children. Welfare reform has removed the federal entitlement to cash benefits and has limited cash assistance to a maximum of five years. Currently states have both more money and more discretion over how to use these funds to help single mothers and children. While it is too soon to judge the outcomes, states appear to be pursuing very different strategies. Some are expanding healthcare coverage, childcare assistance, and job training and placement. Others are imposing strict time limits on mothers’ benefits without providing the support needed to achieve independence. Again, researchers who are interested in the consequences of single parenthood will have multiple opportunities to study these natural experiments to see what they can tell us about the role of income, parental resources and social capital in promoting children’s well-being.

Endnotes

1. The PSID is a study of 5,000 families followed since 1968. The primary objective of this survey was to measure family income dynamics, and therefore these data are very useful for addressing questions about the relationships between father absence and family income. The PSID follows the children of panel families after they leave home and set up their own households, and therefore these data can be used to examine outcomes in young adulthood, such as graduating from high school and college, getting a steady job, and early marriage and childbearing. The NLSY is a sample of approximately 13,000 young adults who were first interviewed in 1979 when they were between the ages of 14 and 21. Like the PSID, the NLSY data contain information on family income during adolescence and on outcomes in young adulthood. They also provide information on children's test scores and attitudes toward school. The High School and Beyond Study contains approximately 50,000 high school sophomores and seniors who were first interviewed in 1980 and followed ever other year through 1986. The HSB Study contains fairly detailed information on children's perceptions of parental practices-involvement, supervision and support-which can be used to study the relationship between father absence and parental resources. The HSB data also provide information on educational attainment, early family formation, and early labor force attachment. The final survey is the NSFH, a survey of approximately 13,000 households interviewed in 1987 and again in 1993. These data provide retrospective information on respondents' own family histories while they were growing up as well as extensive information on their current parenting practices and family relationships. The NSFH data also contain information on parental conflict before and after divorce. The NSFH analysis is based on two cohorts of respondents. Cohort 1 includes individuals who were born in a period similar to respondents in the PSID, NLSY, and HSB, and cohort 2 includes individuals who were born during an early period, i.e. the forties. back to text

2. For more detail about the analyses behind these conclusions, see McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994; Astone and McLanahan, 1991, 1994; Hanson, McLanahan and Thomson, 1996, 1997; Hanson, 1996; Thomson, McLanahan, and Braun-Curtin, 1992; McLanahan, 1985; McLanahan, 1988, McLanahan and Bumpass, 1988; and McLanahan and Booth 1989. back to text

3. The sex differences in college graduation is limited to one data set –the NLSY—and therefore we are not as confident of this effect as we are of some of the other results.

4. For different perspectives on the consequences of teenage parenthood, see Geronimous and Korenman, 1993; Hoffman, Foster and Furstenberg, 1993; Grogger and Bronars 1993; Klepinger, Lundberg and Plotnick, 1997; and Maynard, 1996.back to text

5. For more information on the current child support system and it’s effects on parents and children, see Fathers Under Fire. Garfinkel, McLanahan, Meyer and Seltzer (eds.). New York. Russell Sage Foundation (forthcoming). back to text

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