Two Parent Families, Lies and Statistics

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Thursday, February 28, 2002

Two Parent Families, Lies and Statistics
With reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform legislation looming on the horizon, media and public policy spotlights are focusing on any information about families who have left the welfare rolls or who continue to receive benefits. One new study from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) has generated considerable attention for its findings regarding the number of children living in families headed by single mothers. It also offers an interesting lesson in the importance of defining terms in discussing and reporting social science research.

The new report, A Closer Look at Changes in Children’s Living Arrangements in Low-Income Families, by Andrew Cherlin and Paula Fomby, analyzed data from a sample of children in low-income households in three cities: Boston, Chicago and San Antonio. Cherlin’s team surveyed some 2,100 households in two stages, or “waves,” first in March-December, 1999 (Wave 1) and again in September 2000-May 2001 (Wave 2), comparing the living arrangements of children in those households during those two time periods. The results reveal the relative stability of various living arrangements, from children living with neither parent, to children living with married biological parents, to everything in between. Interestingly, the report uses the term, “two-parent family” to describe any situation in which a child lives with two adults, whether they are married or cohabiting, biologically related or not. Indeed, the authors acknowledge from the outset that they used the term, “parent” in a very broad sense and that many parents’ “partners may or may not be regarded as parent-figures by the caregiver and child.” A cursory reading of the study could lead to distortion of the results. In fact the New York Times article on the study illustrates this very point. It ran with the headline, “2 Parents Not Always Best For Children, Study Finds.”

The truth about parents vs. partners is clearer in the August/September 2000 issue of the BLI publication, Data Digest. There we noted the trend toward families consisting of cohabiting adults and warned that this was cause for concern, not celebration. Cohabiting relationships tend to dissolve at roughly twice the rate of relationship breakup when the couple is married, leaving children in cohabiting households more vulnerable to problems associated with family breakdown than children in intact families. Indeed, nearly 42 percent of the children in the Johns Hopkins study had seen their cohabiting “parents” break up between Waves 1 and 2 of the study. The instability created by such “family transitions” is disruptive enough for Cherlin to give the process a descriptive label-“churning.”

The numbers of children living with their married biological parents-the traditional two-parent family-has remained statistically flat since the mid-1990s. Though fewer children are living in single parent households, most of the change to two “parent” situations involved children living with cohabiting adults, and in most cases it was a matter of the child’s biological mother living with a man who was not the child’s father. Some cases also involved stepfamilies formed when the mother married a nonbiological parent.

Surprisingly, the researchers suggest that cohabiting or stepfamily arrangements, especially to the extent that they create family instability, may be of even less benefit to children than single parent families. In fact, they can possibly be worse. Stepfamily situations can be problematic for children, especially if the marriage occurs when the children are adolescents. Some research indicates that children living in stepfamily or cohabiting households are at far higher risk for abuse than children living in intact families. One study found that the rate of sexual abuse of girls by their stepfathers may be as much as 40 times greater than the rate of such abuse by their fathers in intact family situations.

They conclude by saying, “In any case, it seems safe to say that the benefits [of cohabiting or stepparent households] will be substantially lower, on average, than would be produced by the formation of lasting, two-biological-parent households.” It is indeed “safe” to say so. BLI and other pro-family groups have been saying so for a long time and we will continue to say so, knowing that social science data bear us out.

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