It is a near truism that the best family structure to raise a child in is a two-parent family.
We’re repeatedly told by policymakers, social commentators, religious leaders and a host of others that children raised by both biological parents stand the best chance of success in life. Society routinely blames family structures that deviate from this model for many of its problems. Just think about the last time you heard someone use the term “broken home” or “single-parent household” to explain the misbehavior or misfortune of a person in your social circle.
But what if common knowledge is wrong, especially about a group whose family structures have long been used to explain their social and economic disadvantages — black Americans?
Research I recently conducted on the relationship between family structure and children’s education throws conventional “wisdom” into serious question.
Black Americans have the highest rates of single-parenthood and nonmarital births in the country, and this divergence from the two-parent family ideal is routinely implicated in the lower levels of educational attainment and higher rates of poverty and unemployment within the black community.
Ironically, in a study I recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, I found that living apart from a biological parent does not carry the same cost for black youths as for their white peers, and being raised in a two-parent family is not equally beneficial. In fact, using over 30 years of national data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, I tracked children’s household living arrangements from birth to adulthood, and I demonstrate that family structure has a weaker relationship to the educational success of black adolescents than of white adolescents. I show that living in a single-mother family does not decrease the chances of on-time high school completion as significantly for black youths as for white youths. Conversely, living in a two-parent family does not increase the chances of finishing high school as much for black students as for their white peers.
What explains the differential returns to family structure?
Researchers have hypothesized that disparities in access to socioeconomic resources and being embedded in extended family networks might account for those differences. Because of historic and contemporary structural racism, black youths are more likely to be exposed to socioeconomically stressful environments than are white youths. Some scholars predict that the additional stress incurred by living apart from a parent is only marginally impactful, above and beyond the existing disadvantages. Other researchers point to the fact that black families tend to live closer to extended relatives than do white families and that they exchange substantially more emotional and practical support. Greater involvement in extended family networks may protect against some of the negative effects associated with parental absence from the home.
I tested these two hypotheses, and I found that both help explain racial differences in family structure effects, though the former to a much greater extent. Differences in access to socioeconomic resources such as mother’s education accounted for up to nearly 50 percent of the gap in high school completion, and being embedded in extended family explained roughly 15 percent to 20 percent.
My findings coincide with those of Paula Fomby, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, and her colleagues, who found that repeated changes in family structure are less negatively consequential for black adolescents’ risk behaviors than white adolescents’ risk behaviors. They determined that this weaker association was also explained by black adolescents’ more frequent exposure to socioeconomic stress.
The importance of socioeconomic resources makes sense when we consider the racial gaps in income and wealth between black and white two-parent families. Although in general, youths raised in two-parent families are less likely to live in poverty, black youths raised by both biological parents are still three times more likely to live in poverty than are their white peers. Additionally, black two-parent families have half the wealth of white two-parent families. So, many of the expected economic benefits of marriage and the two-parent family are not equally available to black children.
America has a long and troubled history of viewing racial inequality primarily through the lens of family structure. Recall the publication of the controversial Moynihan Report in 1965, in which government officials pointed to higher rates of “female-headed households” and “out-of-wedlock births” among black Americans as key drivers of the disadvantages they face. Today, three of the four goals of welfare reform emphasize the importance of marriage and the two-parent family for reducing poverty and improving children’s well-being. These goals and the nearly billion-dollar marriage promotion initiatives that followed them are primarily aimed at low-income populations, who are disproportionately families of color.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that the two-parent family is bad for children of any race or ethnicity. Indeed, scholars have noted its wide array of benefits for children, parents and communities, especially those from middle-class backgrounds.
But at a moment in which key welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — which spends up to $150 million dollars annually on marriage promotion initiatives — are in need of full congressional reauthorization, blindly promoting the merits of marriage and the two-parent family is not the answer. My research shows that differences in access to resources largely explain the relationship between family structure and outcomes for black youth. If this is the case, then what deserves policy attention is not black families’ deviation from the two-parent family model but rather structural barriers such as housing segregation and employment discrimination that produce and maintain racialized inequalities in family life.
Christina Cross (@christinajcross) is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of sociology at Harvard.