Children in Broken Homes—Twenty More Years of Research

Almost two decades ago, the flagship journal Social Forces published a landmark 1994 study analyzing the well-being of children living in different kinds of family structure. Now Elizabeth Thomson and Sara McLanahan, two of the authors of that original study, have published a retrospective commentary highlighting “the article’s popularity as a referent point for subsequent research” and underscoring the degree to which “subsequent research [has] confirmed many of [their] findings.”

Using nationally representative data, the original 1994 study established that children living with married biological parents enjoyed significant advantages in academic performance and socio-emotional development over children living with stepparents, cohabiting parents, divorced single mothers, and never-married single mothers. This original study traced a large fraction of this advantage to differences in household income, a smaller fraction to differences in parenting practices.

In the decades since the publication of the original study, researchers have confirmed the overall pattern it uncovered. These newer studies have, in fact, uncovered considerable evidence discrediting progressives’ claims that cohabitation is a perfectly functional replacement for traditional marriage. As Thomson and McClanahan remark, “The new research has shown that cohabiting biological parents are in many ways more similar to cohabiting stepfamilies than to married biological parents.” It turns out that both cohabiting biological parents and cohabiting stepfamilies are “economically disadvantaged in comparison to married biological parents or stepfamilies.” What is more, new studies have found that, compared to married biological parents, “cohabiting biological parents may also provide lower quality parenting” and “are more likely to separate.”

The situation is even worse when children live with a biological mother cohabiting with a man biologically unrelated to her offspring. Thomson and McClanahan cite recent research that “confirms our [1994] finding that children living with their mother and her cohabiting partner have the poorest outcomes, or are more similar to children living with single mothers than to children living with a married stepparent.” The particularly dire plight of children living in cohabiting stepfamilies cannot be “completely explained by the poorer economic circumstances or parental engagement in cohabiting stepfamilies compared with married stepfamilies.”

To some degree, Thomson and McLanahan report, “new research has demonstrated the importance of family instability per se.” Recent studies have established that “the cumulative number of changes [in family structure] may be independently and negatively associated with outcomes during childhood and young adulthood.” Nor should this finding be surprising, given that recent studies have shown that “instability in family structure is associated with lower quality parenting.” On the other hand, however, Thomson and McLanahan highlight recent studies showing that “children living with single mothers do not appear to gain from the stability of that family form.”

Besides giving researchers a fuller understanding of why non-traditional family forms may compromise children’s well-being, recent studies have given them an international perspective unavailable in 1994. In explaining the “lack of research in other welfare regimes, especially the Nordic countries,” Thomson and McLanahan stress that “single mothers [in such regimes] received greater transfers and were better off than single mothers in the United States.” However, in recent years researchers have established that these economic advantages have not erased the disadvantages children live under when they live in non-traditional families. Indeed, Thomson and McLanahan point to “recent research [that] has demonstrated quite convincingly that family structure is strongly associated with children’s well-being, even in the very generous Nordic welfare states.” Thomson and McLanahan cite, in particular, a 2010 study finding that in 24 different countries, “children living with single mothers had fewer material resources, less parental support, and poorer health than those living with two original parents.”

As they conclude their commentary, Thomson and McLanahan emphasize the urgent relevance of the research that has confirmed and amplified their 1994 findings on the relationship between family structure and children’s well-being: “The fact that single-, step- and cohabiting-parent families continue to grow and the fact that they are associated with poorer outcomes for parents and children means that the implications of today’s and tomorrow’s research on these topics are enormous for both individuals and the societies in which they live.”

During the last 20 years, a small army of researchers has established the obvious: children are most likely to flourish and succeed if reared by married biological parents; they are more likely to struggle and fail if reared by cohabiting, divorced, or never-married parents. Such findings are hardly rocket science. But if Americans continue to ignore them, the next two decades will be even worse for children than the last two have been.

(Elizabeth Thomson and Sara S. McLanahan, “Reflections on ‘Family Structure and Child Well-Being: Economic Resources vs. Parental Socialization,” Social Forces 91.1 [2012]: 45-53.)