It is the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report, which warned of the challenges single-parenthood posed to the success of children, especially in the Black community. In recognition of the 50th anniversary, Education Next is running a series of articles on what we now know about the frequency and consequences for children of growing up without their married, biological parents.
The first in this series is an article by Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks asking “Was Moynihan Right?” The answer is a pretty clear yes. You should read the entire article but here is the heart of the argument:
Was Moynihan right in suggesting that children whose parents divorce or never marry have more than their share of problems? This question has been hotly debated ever since the publication of Moynihan’s report. On the one hand, growing up without both biological parents is clearly associated with worse average outcomes for children than growing up with them. Specifically, children growing up with a single mother are exposed to more family instability and complexity, they have more behavior problems, and they are less likely to finish high school or attend college than children raised by both of their parents. On the other hand, these differences in children’s behavior and success might well be traceable to differences that would exist even if the biological father were present.
In recent years, researchers have begun to use what they call “quasi-experimental” approaches to estimate the causal impact of growing up apart from one’s biological father. Some studies compare the outcomes of children living in states with liberal versus restrictive divorce laws. Others compare siblings who were different ages in the year when their father moved out. Still others compare the same child before and after the father left the child’s household. One important limitation of these studies is that while they all focus on children who are not living with both of their biological parents, they differ with respect to their comparison group, whether it is children raised by their mother alone, by their mother and a new spouse, or by their mother and a new partner to whom she is not married. Nonetheless, when taken together these studies are beginning to tell a consistent story. A recent review of 45 studies using quasi-experimental methods concluded that growing up apart from one’s father does reduce a child’s life chances in many domains.
The review’s authors examined the effects of a father’s absence on outcomes in four domains: educational attainment, mental health, labor market performance, and family formation. Growing up with only one biological parent reduces a child’s chances of graduating from high school by about 40 percent, which is similar to the effect of having a mother who did not finish high school rather than one who did. The absence of one’s biological father has not been shown to affect a child’s verbal and math test scores, however. The evidence for other indicators of educational performance, such as high school grades, skipping school, and college aspirations, is mixed, with some studies finding that father absence lowers school attendance and aspirations and others finding no effect. Most studies find larger effects on boys than on girls.
How might we reconcile the fact that a father’s absence affects high school graduation with the lack of evidence that it affects test scores? The answer appears to be that a father’s absence increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule breaking, delinquency, and illegal drug use. These antisocial behaviors affect high school completion independent of a child’s verbal and math scores. Thus it appears that a father’s absence lowers children’s educational attainment not by altering their scores on cognitive tests but by disrupting their social and emotional adjustment and reducing their ability or willingness to exercise self-control. The effects of growing up without both parents on aggression, rule breaking, and delinquency are also larger for boys than for girls. Since these traits predict both college attendance and graduation, the spread of single-parent families over the past few decades may have contributed to the growing gender gap in college attendance and graduation. The gender gap in college completion is much more pronounced among children raised by single mothers than among children raised in two-parent families.