Child well-being and unwed parenthood

Someone emailed me after reading yesterday’s post and asked me about the statement that children born to unmarried parents do worse than their peers on a range of measures.  The measures include things from physical health, to how well the children do at school, to drug use, to how early they start having sex and becoming parents themselves.  Here’s a link to a set of charts from the conservative Heritage Foundation, and here’s a summary of the literature by MDRC, a moderately liberal research organization.

There are two important caveats to keep in mind as you look at these studies.  First, all of the studies are looking at group averages.  So they don’t tell you anything about any given individual who is a member of a group.  There are millions of children of single parents who are healthy, do well in school, have healthy relationships, don’t get involved in any sort of criminal activity, etc. 

Second, there is a huge correlation between single parenthood and low incomes.  This is both because single parents typically only have access to one person’s earnings and because people with lower earnings are more likely to have children while not married.  And so, when you just look at the simple average differences between children of single parents and children of married parents (as Heritage does in the link above), most of the gap is probably driven by differences in income.  However, more sophisticated studies do suggest that marital status matters, even after controlling for income.  (One particularly interesting study supporting this comes from Sweden, which has a much more generous economic safety net for single parents than the US.)

Maybe I’ve been working for the Bush Adminstration too long, but I don’t think their Healthy Marriage Initatiive is an inherently evil notion, as most mainstream feminist organizations do, although I do think it is overly narrowly focused.   Instead, I support the Marriage-Plus proposals, which combine support for marriage and stable relationships with job training and other economic supports as well as programs to combat teen pregnancy.  (Heritage and its ilk consider Marriage-Plus to be heresy.)  During the CLASP audioconference last week, Kathy Edin mentioned a "service-learning" program that had suprisingly good results at reducing teen pregnancy; she suggested that it was because it gave the participants a sense that they could contribute to society in a way other than parenting.  That seems like a worthy goal.

4 Responses to “Child well-being and unwed parenthood”

  1. dave.s. Says:

    It does occur to me that Palin has lapped me: wy wife and I were both older than she is now when we had our first child. Waiting til you have the house bought, mortgage down to manageable, grad school done … it leaves you the oldest parent in the PTA, that’s for sure.

  2. amy Says:

    Please, please, please, Elizabeth, do not push the idea that “low income” coupled with “single parent” means “is depressed, lives in hell, and feeds the kids pop-tarts when not smoking and hollering over the telenovela.” This particular assumption on the part of state employees is starting to make my life more difficult than it has to be.
    Frankly, I wasn’t aware I was in such dire straits until the school district brought it to my attention. Yes, my income’s low, and I’m single (and plan to stay that way until the kid is grown). So I look around at my poverty-stricken living room, here, and I see the same thing I saw while married and rich: a few hundred books, plants, audiophile stuff, science toys, molecular models, kid art supplies, art. Out the window, I see the same deck and apple trees. The piano is new (inside — boy, that’d be some interesting kind of trash, piano on the porch). Dinner was not BK, but sole, potatoes, grapes, and milk. (Yes, someone still cooks sole. It goes with the Karla Kuskin and EB White.) The main difficulty the kid has at school is that it’s the third week and she’s already bored out of her mind, because she’s known the alphabet for three and a half years. She’s nervous about how to tell the teacher this, in case she’s too bored to stand it anymore before I meet with the teacher, so we talk about it on the walk to school.
    The divorce is not easy on her, and neither is her father’s mental illness, but with the help of the “feeling doctor”, she does surprisingly well. (For now. God knows what comes out when she’s twelve.) She supports Obama, much to the college students’ delight, and shushes me if I talk too loudly near people who’re studying in the coffeehouse.
    If I thought I were some freak single mother, I’d leave it alone. I know for a fact, though, that there are plenty more out there more or less like me, if younger and less prone to bedtime stories that stop at about 1975. A middle-class upbringing and an education is no guarantee against poverty after divorce or a relationship split, especially given the fact that a BA is currently worth about two secret decoder rings. So — because unfortunately you have to drill these things into the social workers with continuing ed propaganda — I’d like to see some propaganda to the effect that there is “resource and educational diversity” among poor single parents, with some sort of simple chart about what that may mean for at-riskiness.

  3. dave.s. Says:

    Amy, you may be interested in the comment string at, where there is a lot of discussion of cultural capitol. Pretty clearly, this is something you are providing for your kid, and something which helps a child succeed.

  4. amy Says:

    dave, sure. What I’d dispute is that Elizabeth’s — or Shipler’s — privileged single mom is all that unusual. We have a tremendous divorce rate now, and what’s the percentage of women going to college? Over half? There’s one hell of a lot of single-mom, BA-carrying Nice Girls with little kids. And no few single-mom, PhD-carrying Really Goddamn Tired 40something women out there. Poverty is a main feature, largely because of the women’s refusal to try to be Williams-style ideal workers at their kids’ expense. But there’s lessons up the wazoo, and private schools, and homeschooling, and sports, and travel, summer camps, and so on. The main difference is that the women themselves approach retirement poor, unless they remarry.
    Actually I just got done talking to a 26-year-old whose social-worker husband just dumped her and their two little girls for some chippie; the mother had been at home for the last three years, never used her BA. First thing she did was to go and get a job at a local private school. She’s poor as two church mice, and the salary won’t be anything exciting, and their new neighborhood is lousy, but the Freakonomics lesson is well-understood.
    It’s a whole delightful new world of shabby genteel out there, folks.

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