Editor’s note: This article draws on a symposium hosted by Education Next, which has become the subject of controversy over the journal’s latest cover. Here, we focus on its contents and their implications. -TP
Despite Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warnings fifty years ago, the number of children born to single family homes increased while the associated disadvantages have grown even stronger.
The connection between single-parent households and poverty has been well known for decades. It was documented in a report by the late Senator on the hardships facing African-American families in the 1960s.
Yet, in the decades that followed, when looking at children’s educational outcomes, “the predictive power of single-parent family structure appears to have increased over time,” according to Kathleen Ziol-Guest, Greg Duncan and Ariel Kalil, co-authors of an article in the latest issue of Education Next.
The authors find that students in single-parent homes receive, on average, nearly two fewer years of schooling. Furthermore, 40 percent of students in two-parent households go on to complete college, but the figure drops to less than 15 percent for students in single-parent households.
The Moynihan Report, released in 1965 during a time of racial segregation and tension, may have focused its attention on the African-American family, but researchers Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks find no evidence that single motherhood has different effects on black or white children.
Single parents can still have a positive impact on their children’s education. Zoil-Guest, Duncan and Kalil discovered that, among single mothers, for every 2 years of education of the mother there was a corresponding rise in educational attainment of the children by nearly one additional year. Other studies show that fathers active with their children’s lives decrease childhood delinquency and drug use and can raise their academic achievement.
Combined, mothers and fathers living together with their children leads to “stronger cognitive and non-cognitive skills” for the children as well as an increased likelihood to going to college, earning more money and forming “stable marriages themselves,” according to a study by the left-of-center Brookings Institute.
What can be done to mitigate the academic disadvantages of poverty and single-parent households?