Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur
Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur
describe the results of several longitudinal studies on three outcomes: Idleness,
teen births, and high school graduation. Their suggestions: Low income is
the largest factor affecting achievement in single parent homes, accounting for
half of worse consequences. Arguing that low income and family disruption
mutually cause each other, the authors claim that residential mobility (moving often)
and direct father factors (daddy nurturing) account for the other half.
Judith Rich Harris and others argue the daddy nurturing factor is mistaken because the studies failed to decompose
for genetic factors. The combination of parentsí genes is what causes the worse
outcomes, not direct father influence. The Harris argument concludes that low
income, residential mobility, and bad heredity are major causes, not to mention a slew
of individual and social factors--pop culture, schools, jobs, neighborhoods,
crime prevention strategies, and so on--that would be the subjects of different
books. The substance abuse factor is also not accounted for in these
studies. The studies examined by the authors decomposed for race, gender, geography, parents' education, and number of siblings but not IQ and conscientiousness. Geneticists and psychometricians point out that genotype IQs and conscientiousness have colossal influences on idleness and other issues.
Some consequences may not be huge.
Dropping out of high school is more a symptom of other problems than a disaster
itself. This is not to say that ending a marriage is without major
consequences, especially on the economic and psychological fronts.
Step-families have consequences,
too--bad ones the research suggests. Step-families move more often than single parent families and stepparents
are often uncommitted, emotionally and economically. Serial monogamy leaves a trail of dumped lovers and children. One appalling thing about our society: Our willingness to devalue or abandon children for the most asinine reasons while maintaining correct beliefs
about families. "Family is important," a man might say, "but my
ex-wife is a witch so to hell with it all."
Why is parental absenteeism important?
First, absent parents provide fewer resources. Absence creates new ties that
blind. Absence makes the heart grow colder. Two-thirds of children entitled to
child support get no child support or less than the full amount. Government
neglects its duty to get non-custodial parents to pay.
Second, two providers who pool
resources in one household can live much better than two providers in separate
households--economics of scale. In 1992, 45 percent of families
headed by single parents were in poverty. The figure for two parent families
was 8.4 percent.
Younger children face the most
poverty. In 1997, the official poverty line for a family of four was $16,050 and
23 percent of children under six were in poverty. Even 11.5 percent of married
couple children under six were below the poverty line.
The authors recommend guaranteed jobs,
human capital internships, longer school days, universal health care, a
$500 refundable tax credit, custody
decisions that consider the future mobility factor, a nationally consistent child
support system, better establishment of paternity, and better enforcement of child
support. One key: Encourage two parent families without punishing children
in single parent families. The $500 refundable tax credit is inadequate on both
merit and consequentialist grounds. The authors call the dependent exemption a middle
class policy, but that is not true. The dependent exemption delivers the
most money to those in the highest tax brackets.
The authors do not offer a specific
plan for individual single parents. A plan that might help:
1. Megasearch for cheap housing in
good school districts
2. Choose play groups for young
children that have good kids
3. Avoid moving from a good
4. Look into pooling resources with
5. Cross your fingers
Here is suggestion for those looking
to start a family:
1. Choose your spouse carefully, and
that includes evaluating genes and other unsavory facts you would rather ignore
2. Wait at least 12 months prior to
3. Seek John Gottman-style pre-marital
4. Follow steps one through five above
for single parents
Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated June 28, 2009.