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Are Children of Married Parents Really Better Off?

August 15, 2002 — What is it about family structure that deters youths’ delinquency or promotes it?

New research by University of Utah Assistant Professor Lori Kowaleski-Jones and Cornell University Assistant Professor Rachel Dunifon suggests that the two-parent, married couple family model may only be beneficial for Caucasian children. This may be relevant in light of currently proposed welfare reform legislation, passed by the U.S. House and pending in the Senate, that would allocate $200 million annually to build and sustain healthy marriages.

Kowaleski-Jones, a faculty member in the U’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies, tracked 1,560 nationally-representative youth, ages 10-14, using data spanning a decade to study how family structure affects delinquency and math scores and whether family structure and outcomes differ by race.

The study used statistical models measuring the length of time children spent in various family structures-with married, single or cohabitating parents-and how it promoted or deterred delinquency and academic achievement among children. Academic achievement outcomes were measured by analyzing standardized math achievement scores, which are considered less culturally biased.

To gauge the range and intensity of delinquent behavior, Kowaleski-Jones and Dunifon studied data from questions like: How many times did you stay out later than your parents allowed? Did you hurt someone badly enough to need a doctor’s attention? Did you lie to your parents about something important? Did you take something without paying for it? Did you damage school property on purpose? Did you get drunk? Did you skip school without permission? Did you spend a night out without permission?

“One key finding was that single parenthood is associated with reduced math scores and increased delinquency-but only for White and non-minority children. We did not find negative effects of single parenthood on African American children,” Kowaleski-Jones notes.

Unlike much of the past research, Kowaleski-Jones and Dunifon’s research also took into account another crucial component: underlying individual characteristics of the parents and their persistent personality traits.

“Estimating the associations between family structure and children’s outcomes raises the concern that children living in various family structures differ in unobservable ways. Without being able to fully control all of the ways in which children in single-parent families, for example, differ from those in married-couple families, analyses relating family structure to child outcomes may be biased,” says Kowaleski-Jones. “To address this, we used methods that relied on repeated observations of family structure and the outcomes of interest for each child. As a result, many of the measured and unmeasured characteristics for a specific child, which may be affected by a mother’s personal characteristics, are accounted for in the analyses.

“Some of the past research attributed poor academic performance and delinquency in children to family structure; when, in reality, it might be related to something else,” she explains.

“These findings are interesting-especially in an environment where certain kinds of families are promoted and there is the notion that two-parent families are always best for children. Our results suggest that welfare reform legislation that succeeds in reducing the time that children spend in single-parent families could have the effect of lowering delinquency and improving math scores, but only for white children,” she says.

Kowaleski-Jones and Dunifon’s report is titled “Who’s in the House? Race Differences in Cohabitation, Single Parenthood, and Child Development” and appears in the July/August issue of Child Development.