Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005
Paul R. Amato
Implications of Policies to Increase the Share of Children in Two-Parent Families
Since social science research shows so clearly the advantages enjoyed by children raised by continuously married parents, it is no wonder that policymakers and practitioners are interested in programs to strengthen marriage and increase the proportion of children who grow up in such families. Realistically speaking, what could such programs accomplish? In what follows, I present estimates of how they could affect the share of children in the United States who experience various types of problems during adolescence.
Adolescent Family Structure and Well-Being in the Add Health Study
To make these estimates, I used the Adolescent Health Study—-a national long-term sample of children in junior high and high schools-—relying on data from Wave I, conducted in 1995. Table 1 is based on adolescents' responses to questions about behavioral, emotional, and academic problems—-specifically, whether they had repeated a grade, been suspended from school, engaged in delinquent behavior, engaged in a violent altercation, received counseling or therapy for an emotional problem, smoked cigarettes regularly during the last month, thought about suicide, or attempted suicide. Delinquency involved damaging property, shoplifting, breaking into a house or building to steal something, stealing something worth more than $50, or taking a car without the owner's permission. Violence was defined as engaging in a physical fight as a result of which the opponent had received medical attention (including bandaging a cut) or a fight involving multiple people or using a weapon to threaten someone. The results are based on responses from more than 17,000 children between the ages of twelve and eighteen, and the data have been weighted to make them nationally representative.63
Responses are shown separately for adolescents living with continuously married parents and for those living with one parent only. The results are striking. Adolescents living with single parents consistently report encountering more problems than those living with continuously married parents. Thirty percent of the former reported that they had repeated a grade, as against 19 percent of the latter. Similarly, 40 percent of children living with single parents reported having been suspended from school, compared with 21 percent of children living with continuously married parents. Children in stable, two-parent families also were less likely to have engaged in delinquency or violence, seen a therapist for an emotional problem, smoked during the previous month, or thought about or attempted suicide. These findings are consistent with research demonstrating that children living with continuously married parents report fewer problems than do other children. The increase in risk associated with living without both parents ranged from about 23 percent (for being involved in a violent altercation) to 127 percent (for receiving emotional therapy).
To estimate the frequency of these problems in the larger population, I relied on the Add Health finding that 55 percent of adolescents between the ages of twelve to eighteen lived with both biological parents at the time of the survey. Given that rates of divorce and nonmarital births have not changed much since the mid-1990s, this figure is probably close to the current figure, and it is nearly identical to the estimate provided by Susan Brown from the 1999 National Survey of American Families. (Because most children in the sample were younger than eighteen and could still experience a parental divorce or death before reaching adulthood, these results are consistent with the projection that about half of all children will live continuously with both biological parents until adulthood.) The third column in table 1 shows the estimated share of adolescents in the U.S. population who experience each problem, based on the data in the first two columns.64
How would increasing the share of children growing up in stable, two-parent families affect the overall levels of these problems in the population? To provide estimates, I considered three levels of social change. The fourth column in table 1 provides estimates of adolescent outcomes if the share of adolescents living with two biological parents were the same as it was in 1980, the year in which the share of marriages ending in divorce reached its peak but before the large increase in nonmarital births during the 1980s and early 1990s. The fifth column provides estimates of adolescent outcomes if the share of adolescents living with continuously married parents were the same as it was in 1970, the year just before the massive increase in divorce rates during the 1970s. The final column provides estimates of adolescent outcomes if the share of adolescents living with continuously married parents were the same as it was in 1960, a period of relative family stability in the United States.65
Column four shows that if the share of adolescents living with two biological parents were the same today as it was in 1980, the share of adolescents repeating a grade would fall from 24 percent to about 23 percent. Similarly, if the share of adolescents living with two biological parents returned to its 1970 level, the share of adolescents repeating a grade would fall to about 22 percent. Finally, if the share of adolescents living with two biological parents increased to its 1960 level, the share of adolescents repeating a grade would fall to 21 percent.
How is it that increasing the share of children growing up with continuously married parents has such a relatively small effect on the share of children experiencing these problems? The explanation is that many children living with continuously married parents also experience these problems. In general, these findings, which are likely to disappoint some readers, are consistent with a broad, sociological understanding of human behavior. Most behaviors are determined by numerous social, cultural, individual, and biological factors. No single variable, such as family structure, has a monolithic effect on children's development and behavior. Although increasing the share of children growing up in stable, two-parent families would lower the incidence of all the problems shown in table 1, clearly it is not a panacea for the problems confronting our nation's youth.
Individual versus Public Health Perspectives
Whether one views the estimated changes in table 1 as small or big depends in large part on whether one adopts an individual perspective or a public health perspective. Attempts during the past twenty years by public health authorities to address cholesterol-related health problems help to illustrate this distinction. Many epidemiological and clinical studies have shown that a high level of blood cholesterol is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. How large is the estimated effect of cholesterol on cardiovascular disease? Consider a group of male nonsmokers age fifty with normal blood pressure. Men in this group with high total cholesterol (defined as 250 mg/dL) have a 7 percent chance of suffering a heart attack during the next decade. In comparison, men in this group with low total cholesterol (defined as 190 mg/dL) have only a 4 percent chance. In other words, decreasing total cholesterol from a “dangerous” level to a “safe” level would lower the risk of having a heart attack for men in this group by 3 percentage points. Based on projections like these, public health authorities have encouraged people with high cholesterol to lower their cholesterol by eating fewer foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, losing weight, and exercising more often. Physicians often recommend supplementing these lifestyle changes with cholesterol-lowering medications, such as statin drugs.66
Seen from a different perspective, however, 93 percent of men age fifty with high total cholesterol will not suffer a heart attack in the next decade. There are only 7 chances in 100 that a particular man will have a heart attack, and even if he lowers his cholesterol, he still has 4 chances in 100 of suffering a heart attack. In other words, all the required changes in lifestyle, plus the use of medications, will lower his chances of a heart attack by only 3 chances out of 100. An individual man with high cholesterol, therefore, may well wonder if is worth the effort to change his lifestyle and take medication. At the population level, however, with more than 9 million men in the United States in their early fifties, a 3 percentage point reduction in heart attacks would be seen as a major public health achievement, because it would mean a quarter of a million fewer heart attacks in this group over a decade. 67
The cholesterol example is relevant to understanding the effects of growing up without both parents in the household. The increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease associated with high blood cholesterol is comparable in many respects to the increase in the risk of behavioral, emotional, and academic problems associated with growing up in a single-parent household. For example, the increase in heart attacks associated with high blood cholesterol represents a 75 percent increase in risk—([7 – 4]/4) x 100—a figure comparable to the increased risk associated with single parenthood and repeating a grade, being suspended from school, receiving therapy, or attempting suicide. Adopting a public health view and considering the number rather than the percentage of adolescents who might be affected helps put these findings in perspective.
In 2002 there were about 29 million children in the United States between the ages of twelve and eighteen—the age range covered in table 1.68 Table 2 indicates that nearly 7 million children in this age group will have repeated a grade. Increasing the share of adolescents living with two biological parents to the 1980 level, as illustrated in the second column of the table, suggests that some 300,000 fewer children would repeat a grade. Correspondingly, increasing the share of adolescents living with two biological parents to the 1970 level, as illustrated in the third column, would mean that 643,264 fewer children would repeat a grade. Finally, increasing the share of adolescents in two-parent families to the 1960 level suggests that nearly three-quarters of a million fewer children would repeat a grade. Similarly, increasing marital stability to its 1980 level would result in nearly half a million fewer children suspended from school, about 200,000 fewer children engaging in delinquency or violence, a quarter of a million fewer children receiving therapy, about a quarter of a million fewer smokers, about 80,000 fewer children thinking about suicide, and about 28,000 fewer children attempting suicide. Seen from this perspective, restoring family stability to levels of a few decades ago could dramatically affect the lives of many children. Moreover, although the estimated decline in the share of children encountering these problems in table 1 is modest, increasing the number of children growing up with both parents would simultaneously improve all these outcomes, as well as many other outcomes not considered in these tables.