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  • What are the mechanisms that cause children growing up with a single parent to be more likely to get in trouble in school? Tweet This
  • In a new paper in The Future of Children, economist Melanie Wasserman focuses on how the effects of family structure vary by children’s gender and race. Tweet This

Here are some of the well-known risks for children growing up with a single mother compared to their peers in married-couple families: lower school achievement, more discipline problems and school suspension, less high school graduation, lower college attendance and graduation, more crime and incarceration (especially for boys), less success in the labor market, and more likely to become single parents themselves (especially for girls), thereby starting the cycle all over again for the next generation. As Melanie Wasserman writes in her article  “The Disparate Effects of Family Structure,” published in the spring 2020 issue of The Future of Children, “children who grow up in households without two biological married parents experience more behavioral issues, attain less education, and have lower incomes in adulthood.”

Yes, we know all that. 

What we don’t know for sure is why. What are the mechanisms that cause children growing up with a single parent to be more likely to get in trouble in school, for instance? Are there selection effects; that is, do women who become single mothers differ from those who marry? Is the problem the absence of a male “role model,” or is it the lack of parental time and money? Since white children are far more likely to grow up with two parents than black, does race play any role in these family structure disparities? And finally, given what we know, what policies might help equalize the life chances of children of single and married parents?  

Wasserman, an economist at UCLA, tries to bring us closer to disentangling some of the threads in this knot of questions. She tackles them only indirectly, by focusing on how the effect of family structure varies by children’s gender and race. But, though the mysteries remain, it’s an approach that strengthens the case for a number of crucial theories scholars can work with.

That “The Disparate Effects” can’t fully resolve the question about why family structure is related to children’s well-being is not a criticism. Scholars have been trying to get an air-tight fix on the question since the 1965 Moynihan report and that’s not likely for the foreseeable future. Wasserman mentions a number of the roadblocks. We can’t randomly assign a child to a family to test a proposition, and even if we could, there’s no way to hold a family’s “inputs” constant. Parents lose jobs, become disabled, get divorced, or remarry; the same child of married parents in one snapshot study could be the child of a single mother in another one three years later. 

Then there is the cause-and-effect merry-go-round. Kids with more behavior problems may increase household tension, which could lead to divorce, or in the case of unmarried parents, father estrangement; or parents who fight could intensify a sensitive child’s problem behavior, which in turn aggravates the couples’ conflict and ultimately lands them in divorce court. Financial difficulties could stress out a couple so much they ultimately file for divorce, which might then limit the parents’ ability to save for college. Should researchers list financial difficulties or family breakup as the cause of a child’s curtailed education? 

The most confident of Wasserman’s conclusions will be familiar to most family scholars: ”the absence of a biological father in the home yields especially negative consequences for boys." The evidence on that score is sizeable. In school, boys growing up with a single mother are more often described by teachers as exhibiting externalizing or acting out behavior; sons of single mothers are more likely to be suspended in the 8th grade than those of married parents. (Girls have a similar gap by family structure, but they are suspended far less often. Girls also tend to internalize their struggles with father-absence and the effects are more often relational.) Boys from single-parent families are more often diagnosed and treated for ADHD. One Florida study following kids from third through eighth grade found that girls are more likely to be assessed as kindergarten-ready and less likely to be suspended than boys even when you control for maternal education, age, and Medicaid receipt; that gender gap widens considerably when you compare only the children of single mothers. Compellingly, the study found that even among children born to the same mother, sons still benefited from being born to a married mother.  

Though family structure doesn’t seem to have any positive or negative effect on the reading and math scores of either boys or girls, girls are still more likely to graduate high school and go on to college, probably because they are better readers and have more advanced “social skills” (i.e. fewer behavioral problems). Since sons of single mothers are more likely to be suspended than sons of married couples, and since middle school suspension predicts high school failure, that suggests that the prevalence of single parenthood plays a role in boys’ aggregate lower GPA and girls’ predominance on college campuses, a conclusion Wasserman explored in a much-cited 2015 paper “Wayward Sons” co-authored with David Autor.   

One common sense theory about these gender gaps is that boys in single-parent families get fewer parental “inputs,” specifically time and resources. Wasserman is skeptical about how much this can explain. True, she notes, single mothers spend less time with, and feel less warmth towards, their sons than their daughters. But since the studies that reach these conclusions have no data on how much time the children spend with nonresidential fathers, we don’t know whether boys raised by a single mother are actually getting less overall parental attention. Other studies do actually show nonresidential dads are more attentive to their sons than their daughters, which might, or might not, compensate for maternal distance. 

Does race add to our understanding of the family structure gender gap? Not really. On the one hand, as Wasserman points out, the children of white single mothers are less likely to make it through college than white kids from married-couple families, while black children from single and married families have similar college graduations. Meanwhile, the race gender gap for high school graduation runs in the opposite direction; children of white single mothers are less affected by family structure than children of black single mothers. One exception to these otherwise confusing results is that fatherlessness is strongly associated with incarceration and unemployment chances for black boys. Wasserman sees the conclusion this way: 

the effects of family structure don’t vary systematically for white and minority youth—with the exception of black boys, who appear to fare especially poorly in families and low-income neighborhoods without fathers present. 

If boys, regardless of race, are more sensitive to family structure, they are also more easily swayed by where they live. Single-parent families often cluster together in the same neighborhoods and, since those households tend to be poorer than those of married couples, the neighborhoods often suffer from other sorts of disadvantages. When we consider the fact that children of single parents tend to have more unsupervised time, and that boys get less supervision than girls, we have a potential explanation for why boys may be more susceptible to peer effects. Raj Chetty’s research suggests that troubled neighborhoods limit the future of sons of single mothers more than they do their daughters. Chetty’s well-known finding that black sons of single parents benefit from living in a neighborhood with more black fathers around even if they themselves are not living with one is relevant here as well.

Many of the findings cited by Wasserman collide with questions beyond the expertise of an economist; they are also questions that have become so politicized as to scare off a lot of potential researchers in other fields. Are there innate emotional, developmental, and/or neurological differences between the sexes that can explain why boys are more easily affected by family structure and the neighborhoods where they live? 

Relatedly, do fathers respond differently to their boy and girl children? For that matter, do mothers? The reasonable hypothesis at this point is—yes. As Wasserman points out, in married-couple families, fathers spend more time with their sons, while mothers give more time to their daughters. Fathers with sons are more engaged in family life. Couples whose first-born is a girl are at greater risk of divorce than those whose first child is a boy. An unmarried mother who gives birth to a son is more likely to marry the child’s father than those who have a girl. Similarly, nonresidential fathers stay more involved with their kids when one of them is a boy. Notice that the fact that fathers appear to be more drawn to their sons than their daughters doesn’t seem to compensate for the lack of a father at home.

What does all of this mean for policy makers? Like many other family scholars, Wasserman is skeptical of marriage promotion programs, at least for the most disadvantaged parents. While middle-income mothers “benefited greatly from marriage,” she argues, children of the youngest, least educated mothers don’t see much gain from having a husband at home, likely because of the quality of available males. Those findings hold for both black and white mothers. 

Unfortunately, this leaves us with the same weak tea proposals scholars have been relying on for years: school-based socio-emotional skills programs, Career Academies, more research.  “The Disparate Effects of Family Structure” fruitfully strengthens our understanding of its subject but still leaves us wondering: now what? 

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.