Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005
Family Structure and Family Income: A First Look
Figures 1 and 2 compare the incomes of single-parent families with those of married-parent and cohabiting families using two different measures of income. The first, which we call “official income,” reflects family income as reported by the Census Bureau. That official measure, however, does not take into account many factors that have important ramifications for families' economic well-being, including federal tax liabilities, earned income tax credit benefits, food stamp benefits, out-of-pocket work-related child care expenses, and family size. In figure 2, we therefore report results for a second measure, which we call “adjusted per capita income,” that incorporates these factors.17 We prefer the adjusted measure both because it paints a more accurate picture of the disposable resources available to the family and because it takes into account family size by dividing adjusted income by the total number of family members.18
The official and adjusted income measures tell roughly the same story, though household disparities are somewhat smaller when adjusted for family size. In both figures 1 and 2, the financial resources of married-parent families are substantially greater than those of lone-parent families. The median official income for lone-parent families is a little more than one-third that of married-parent families. The median adjusted per capita income of lone-parent families is about 55 percent of that of married-parent families. The median adjusted income of cohabiting families is slightly less than 65 percent of that of married-parent families.19
In table 1, we extend our exploration of the variation in adjusted per person income by family type by looking at race and ethnicity. The top panel of the table shows that, as expected, blacks and Hispanics tend to have less adjusted family income per person than whites across all family types. Among blacks, the median lone-parent family has slightly more than half as much adjusted income as the median two-parent family, while a cohabiting family has about three-quarters as much adjusted income as the typical two-parent family. The results for whites are qualitatively similar, although the differences across family types are somewhat less dramatic than they are among blacks. Income differences are likewise smaller among Hispanics than they are among either whites or blacks.
The bottom panel of table 1 examines child poverty rates by race and family types, using our adjusted measure of income. Child poverty rates vary considerably across races, with children in white families much less likely to be poor than their black and Hispanic counterparts. Within each race, child poverty rates are substantially higher among lone-parent families than among married-parent families. Child poverty is less common among cohabiting families than among lone-parent families, but more common than it is among married-parent families. As a whole, children in lone-parent families are more than four times as likely to be poor as children in married-parent families, while children in cohabiting families are almost three times as likely to be poor as children in married-parent families.
Overall, these findings paint a consistent picture: children in lone-parent and cohabiting households tend to have fewer economic resources available to them, and are more likely to be poor, than children in married-parent families. Children in cohabiting households tend to be better off economically than children in lone-parent households. These findings apply for all races and across a variety of measures.
Do these findings necessarily mean that differences in family structure have created these economic disparities? Might it not be that the sorts of people who are most likely to divorce or have children out of wedlock are also the sorts of people who are most likely to have limited incomes, regardless of their living arrangements? Could it be that economic distress helps to bring about marital dissolution? If the answers to such questions are yes, then one would expect to see a correlation between family structure and family economic well-being, even if the former had no effect on the latter.