Less Poverty, Less Prison, More College: What Two Parents Mean For Black and White Children

“Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents’ race or educational background.”
~ Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps

Princeton University sociology professor Sara McClanahan summarized the social scientific consensus about the importance of family structure for children with her colleague Gary Sandefur in this passage from their magisterial 1992 book, Growing Up with A Single Parent. In recent years, many other scholars have come to similar conclusions, from Paul Amato at Penn State to Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution to Melanie Wasserman at UCLA. The consensus view has been that children are more likely to flourish in an intact, two-parent family, compared to children in single-parent or stepfamilies.

But this consensus view is now being challenged by a new generation of scholarship and scholars. For instance, sociologist Christina Cross at Harvard University recently published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home,” that contended “living apart from a biological parent does not carry the same cost for black youths as for their white peers.” In The Times and in another op-ed this month in The Harvard Gazette, she draws on her work indicating that black children are less affected by family structure on a number of educational outcomes to make the argument that family structure is less consequential for black children. In recent years, other family scholars (here and here) have also called into question the idea that children do better in stable two-parent families.

One practical implication of this revisionist line of research is that children may not benefit from having their father in the household. Another implication is that the value of the two-parent family may be markedly different across racial lines, with black children less likely to benefit from such a family. Accordingly, in this Institute for Families Studies research brief, we investigate two questions:

1) Are black children more likely to flourish in an intact, two-parent home compared to black children raised by single-parents or in stepfamilies? We focus on these three subgroups because they are the largest family groups for American children today, including African American children. And we answer this question by looking at three important outcomes: child poverty, college graduation, and incarceration.

2) Is the association between family structure and child outcomes markedly different by race? Here, we focus on comparing white and black children in intact, two-parent families to their peers in non-intact families—single-parent families, stepfamilies, and other families. Our aim is to determine if the association is different for black children compared to white children on the three outcomes noted above.

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