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Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010

Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing
Jane Waldfogel Terry-Ann Craigie Jeanne Brooks-Gunn

Past Research on the Links between Family Structure and Child Outcomes

An extensive body of work has examined the effects of parental divorce on child outcomes. As noted, however, most of this work was published before the massive increase in unwed parenthood that now characterizes American families. Thus, informative as it was about the effects of divorce, this early wave of research lacked data to explain how unwed parenthood might affect child outcomes.

The classic study by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, published in 1994, bridged the gap by bringing together an array of evidence on how growing up in various types of nontraditional families—including both divorced families and unwed-mother families —affected child well-being. Even after controlling for the selection of different types of individuals into different types of family structure, the authors concluded that children who spent time in divorced- or unwed-mother households fared considerably worse than those remaining in intact two-parent families throughout their childhood and adolescence. While they were still in high school, they had lower test scores, college expectations, grade-point averages, and school attendance, and as they made the transition to young adulthood, they were less likely to graduate from high school and college, more likely to become teen mothers, and somewhat more likely to be "idle" (a term that refers to those who are disengaged from both school and work).

In addition, although the differences were not large (and not always statistically significant), children of unwed parents tended to fare worse than those with divorced parents, even after taking into account differences in basic demographic characteristics such as race, sex, mother's and father's education, number of siblings, and residence. For example, although the risk of dropping out of high school was 31 percent for children whose parents had divorced, it was 37 percent for children whose parents were unwed; similarly, although the risk of a teen birth for children whose parents had divorced was 33 percent, it was 37 percent for children whose parents were unwed.30

With regard to mechanisms, McLanahan and Sandefur found that income was an important explanatory factor for the poorer outcomes of children in single-parent families (but not for children in stepparent families). On average, single-parent families had only half the income of two-parent families, and this difference accounted for about half the gap between the two sets of children in high school dropout and nonmarital teen birth rates (in regression models that also controlled for race, sex, mother's and father's education, number of siblings, and residence).31 The other important mechanism was parenting. When McLanahan and Sandefur entered parenting into the regressions (instead of income), they found that the poorer parenting skills and behaviors in single-parent families explained about half the gap in high school dropout rates, but only a fifth of the gap in teen birth rates (again controlling for race, sex, mother's and father's education, number of siblings, and residence). Because the authors did not control for income and parenting in the same models, the question of how much overlap there was in their effects remains.

Although child health was not a focus in the McLanahan and Sandefur analysis, other analysts have consistently found effects of family structure on children's health outcomes.32 Janet Currie and Joseph Hotz found that children of single mothers are at higher risk of accidents than children of married mothers, even after controlling for a host of other demographic characteristics.33 Anne Case and Christina Paxson showed that children living with stepmothers receive less optimal care and have worse health outcomes than otherwise similar children living with their biological mothers (whether married or single).34 An extensive body of research also links single-parent and cohabiting-family structures with higher risk of child abuse and neglect.35

As McLanahan and Sandefur noted at the time, their findings were worrisome given the burgeoning growth in unwed parenthood in the United States at the time. Although an earlier generation of researchers had debated whether or not divorce affected children's well-being, McLanahan and Sandefur's findings left little doubt that children of unwed parents were worse off than other groups. Concern about how children would fare in unwed families ultimately led to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.36