Families, communities, and nations are stronger when children grow up in a household with both biological parents. This statement is supported by social scientists who summarized the social science consensus. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur are sociology professors at Princeton University, and they wrote the following in their book titled Growing Up with A Single Parent .
Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents’ race or educational background.
Other social scientists came to similar conclusions, such as Paul Amato (Penn State), Isabel Sawhill (Brookings Institution), and Melanie Wasserman (UCLA). In a brief authored by social scientists Brad Wilcox, Wendy Wang, and Ian Rowe, the authors discussed this consensus as well as a challenge to it.
The consensus view has been that children are more likely to flourish in an intact, two-parent family, compared to children in single-parent or stepfamilies. But this consensus view is now being challenged by a new generation of scholarship and scholars. For instance, sociologist Christina Cross at Harvard University recently published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home,” that contended “living apart from a biological parent does not carry the same cost for black youths as for their white peers.” In The Times and in another op-ed this month in The Harvard Gazette, she draws on her work indicating that black children are less affected by family structure on a number of educational outcomes to make the argument that family structure is less consequential for black children. In recent years, other family scholars … have also called into question the idea that children do better in stable two-parent families.
One practical implication of this revisionist line of research is that children may not benefit from having their father in the household. Another implication is that the value of the two-parent family may be markedly different across racial lines, with black children less likely to benefit from such a family.
The Institute for Families Studies investigated two questions: (1) “Are black children more likely to flourish in an intact, two-parent home compared to black children raised by single-parents or in stepfamilies?” (2) “Is the association between family structure and child outcomes markedly different by race?”
To answer the first question, the researchers focused on two-parent homes, single-parent home, and stepfamily homes “because they are the largest family groups for American children today, including African American children. They looked at three important outcomes to answer the question: child poverty, college graduation, and incarceration.
To answer the second question, the researchers’ focus was “on comparing white and black children in intact, two-parent families to their peers in non-intact families – single-parent families, stepfamilies, and other families.” Their aim was “to determine if the association is different for black children compared to white children on the three outcomes noted above.”
The article gave charts, numbers, and explanations to answer their questions. The following is their conclusion.
Using new Census data and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, this brief finds that black and white children from intact homes are significantly more likely to be flourishing economically, educationally, and socially on the three outcomes examined here: child poverty, education, and incarceration.
At the same time, consistent with Cross’ research, we do find that the association between family structure and one major education outcome, college graduation, is weaker for black children than white children. Nevertheless, young black adults are significantly more likely to graduate from college if they grew up in an intact family.
Our results also indicate that a stable, two-parent family is no panacea for African-American children. Black children in stable, two-parent families are more likely to experience poverty and incarceration, and less likely to graduate from college, compared to their white peers from stable, two-parent families. Racial inequality casts a shadow even on black children in intact families.
To be clear, this descriptive brief does not make claims about causality. A number of factors not measured in this brief may confound the associations between family structure and child outcomes documented here. Young adults’ family structure growing up is obviously endogenous to their family income, for instance, given that married parents tend to have a higher income than single parents. Here, progressives tend to minimize the ways that family income is a consequence of family structure (two parents can more easily earn a decent income than one parent) even as conservatives tend to minimize the ways that a stable marriage is a consequence of a decent income (relationships are stronger when they are undergirded by a steady income.)
What we can conclude is, consistent with a longstanding social scientific consensus about family structure, children are significantly more likely to avoid poverty and prison, and to graduate from college, if they are raised in an intact two-parent family. This association remains true for both black and white children. In the vast majority of cases, these homes are headed by their own married mother and father.
In sum, it is no “myth” to point out that boys and girls are more likely to flourish today in America if they are raised in a stable, two-parent home. It is simply the truth that white and black children usually do better when raised by their own mother and father, compared to single-parent and stepfamilies. Our results, then, also suggest the fraying fabric of American family life, where more kids grow up a part from one of their two parents – usually their own father – is an “equal opportunity tsunami,” posing obstacles to the healthy development of children from all backgrounds.
It makes sense that children do better when they live in a household with their two biological parents. Mothers and fathers serve different roles in a child’s life, and both roles are important for a child to thrive. The authors of this study have shown that families, communities, and nations are stronger when children are reared in a household with both biological parents.