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.
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. She is the author of several books, most recently The New Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter here.
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