Yet another study was published recently showing that “children born to unmarried parents are disadvantaged relative to children born to married parents in terms of parental capabilities and family stability”. The study follows the lives of 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 in large US cities. It is called the ‘Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study’. It is overseen by Princeton University’s Professor Sarah McLanahan. She was interviewed about the study recently on the BBC. What is fascinating is the interviewer’s obvious resistance to the findings of the research.
Professor McLanahan, who raised a child on her own for ten years, first of all outlines some of the main conclusions of the study.
She says of the ‘fragile families’ followed by her research team: “The bottom line is that there is an enormous amount of instability, partnership changes, so a lot of them, mothers who do start out cohabiting with the father, most of those relationships end by the time the children are five-nine years old and then the mother goes on to look and have another partner that she may live with, and she may have a child with that second partner. And then that relationship may you end. And so, the children in these families are exposed to a lot of changes in the partnership composition of the household. They also end up with many half-siblings.”
The interviewer then asks: “When you looked at the children’s education, their emotional well-being, their behavior, how did it look for the children?”
Professor McLanahan responds: “It looked worse in every dimension and some of that is due to the fact that these children have less educated parents, they have lower incomes and all of those things but even after you take those factors into account, there’s an additional a negative consequence associated with the partnership changing. So, the children they do worse on cognitive tests. They do worse in behavior, especially social emotional behaviour problems, and there’s also more asthma, worse sleep patterns and lots of just health problems as compared to children raised in stable two parent families.”
It is now that the interviewer begins to resist the findings and discover if there is some way to explain them away and conclude that they have nothing to do with the children having two parents per se, or with being married.
She asks Professor McLanahan “how she could be so sure that these results are due to the parent’s marital status and not other differences.”
Professor McLanahan responds: “But you can do that statistically by comparing parents who have the same amount of instabilities but one also had the instability of partnership and the other family has not.”
The interviewer presses on: “And is the effect of being unmarried really worse than some of the other effects that we’re talking about?”
Professor McLanahan cuts to the heart of the interviewer’s concern: “I think what you’re asking is: what if you were unmarried, a stable single mother, who has lived in the same house and never had a partner. There are a few of these mothers and the research does show their children do worse. And if you think about it, why do they do worse? They have one parent time instead of two.”
The interviewer still doesn’t let up: “Were these results consistent enough for you to be absolutely sure that you were saying, an effect that was linked to the to the family setup?”
Professor McLanahan (remember, she lived for 10 years as a lone parent and therefore sympathises greatly with lone parents) sticks to her guns. She says: “Yes, yes, I think so. A parent’s time and money is what parents have to invest in their children so when you only have one parent you’re going to have less time and money, even though as many as about a third of the unmarried fathers do stay involved with their children, even after they’ve ended the relationship with her mother. But they don’t stay nearly as involved as the married fathers and one of the things that’s interesting about this, or sad I guess you could say, is that during the last twenty years there’s been a large increase in fathers’ involvement with children and so the during the period when the more highly educated fathers are spending more time with their children, the less than college educated fathers are spending much less, primarily because they’re not living with their children. What worries me the most is I see this as really contributing to a growing gap between the children born to educated parents and the children born to less educated parents. So, it’s increasing inequality”.
Even now, the interviewer won’t let go. She still wants to be absolutely sure that the study really finds that family structure makes a difference to children.
Now she states: “Your study includes thousands of families but given the complexity of families and of day-to-day living, how can you be sure that the families you studied give you a reliable enough findings to make these conclusions?”
Professor McLanahan (a very patient women evidently) responds: “We can’t run an experiment where we had kids who are exactly alike, we assign one living to a fragile family or being born to a fragile family, and one being born to a stable to parent family. So, we can never rule out that some of the factors that are affecting those choices are responsible for the poor child outcomes. But we have lots of econometric and statistical approaches for dealing with these issues and my sense, at the end of the day, is that there is a causal effect in these family changes on child wellbeing. I don’t think it’s gigantic, it’s not as big as the effect of mothers’ education, but it’s big enough to be a concern, it’s big enough to increase inequality.”
What is going on here is very interesting. When studies are published showing the poverty can have ill effects on children, no-one asks the researchers if they can be absolutely, 100 percent sure that they are really measuring the effects of poverty and not other factors (e.g. family instability!).
Studies have been produced of children raised by same-sex parents saying the children are doing just fine, and they are barely questioned, even though the sample sizes are almost always tiny and/or non-random.
But here we see huge resistance to the findings of another big, longitudinal study which indicates that family structure makes a difference to the lives of children, even after controlling for other factors.
Finally, having explored every other avenue, the interviewer pointblank asks: “Do you worry that your findings are open to being hijacked by people who might want to draw quite different conclusions about how, particularly women, should lead their lives?”
Professor McLanahan answers: “Definitely yes. There are people who would like to say, you know if we just get everybody married everything will be ok, and you know, I definitely don’t think that would fix things at all. I think we have to fix a lot of this societal conditions that are making it so hard for these parents to have a stable relationship.
But who is really saying this? Who really thinks that getting married is a cure-all? But it clearly helps in some cases, as the Fragile Families study indicates. Why can’t we say this? Perhaps it is ideological resistance to saying marriage matters that is the real problem here, or ideological resistance to saying fathers matter?
Few people say mothers don’t matter and surely it is simply common sense to suggest that having the father around is of benefit both to the mother and the children, assuming he is a fit parent?
Maybe one day we can accept studies like this one at face value, draw the necessary policy conclusions and do what we can to connect more fathers to their children and the mothers of their children. That something used to be marriage.