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Monday, January 16, 2017

The Effect of Family Structure on Children's Educational Opportunity

The International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) has a nice series of short articles in which demographers summarize recent research findings. Today's posting was related to the question: Does parental separation increase inequality of educational opportunity? The authors (Fabrizio Bernardi and Diderik Boertien) rely primarily on cohort data from the UK, but they also call upon data from the U.S., Italy, and Germany. Their overall conclusion is that (a) children growing up with parents with lower levels of education are themselves less likely to achieve higher levels of education; (b) children growing up in a household in which the parents are separated (at some time during the child's life--the analysis doesn't give this information) are less likely to go on to university than those whose parents do not separate; but (c) the complication is that children with parents with higher education who separate are more affected educationally than are those whose parents have lower education and separate. 

The authors interpret their findings to mean that family structure may not be as consequential as many people think:
Various scholars (Cherlin, 2014; McLanahan and Percheski, 2008; Putnam 2016; Wax 2007) have claimed that family structure (and single motherhood in particular) is an important factor explaining differences in life outcomes across socioeconomic groups in Western countries.
The problem with the authors' interpretation is, however, that their comparison is between children whose parents were married and then either separated or stayed together. The authors whom they cite are much more focused on out-of-wedlock childbearing. As I have noted myself, especially in reference to the work of Isabel Sawhill, but also to that of Andrew Cherlin (a Past President of the Population Association of America), the evidence is very strong that children growing up in a single-parent household (typically the mother, and sometimes without any recognition of the existence of the birth father) are at a disadvantage relative to other children. The relationship may be complex, but it cannot be dismissed.


  1. Oops: