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What research says about two-parent families keeping kids out of jail and in school

Study says fathers and mothers at home impact whether kids go to college, end up in jail or live in poverty, but there are racial differences

In this Sunday, July 17, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama, second from right, walks with his family, first lady Michelle Obama, left, and their daughters Malia, third from left, and Sasha from St. John’s Episcopal Church, to the White House in Washington.
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In a year when inequality and racial justice competed hard with the consequences of the global pandemic for national attention, experts are divided on what factors lead children — and particularly Black children — to flourish or fall behind.

Experts have long said all children fare best when they grow up in homes with both their biological parents. But the notion that the benefits of a two-parent home applies equally to all children was recently challenged by Harvard sociologist Christina Cross, a postdoctoral fellow who wrote in The New York Times that “living apart from a biological parent does not carry the same cost for Black youths as for their white peers.”

She’s not the only academic to question whether family structure or systemic race-based inequality plays a larger role in the outcomes for Black families.

A brief for the Institute for Family Studies, released Thursday, tries to settle the question, looking specifically at how family structure impacts college graduation, child poverty and incarceration. The researchers also examined race, comparing outcomes for Black and white children depending on if they grew up with both biological parents, in single-parent households or in stepfamilies.

As Father’s Day approaches, we set out to investigate the value of stable, two-parent families,” said Brad Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. “We find, for instance, that young adults who grew up in a stable home with their own mother and father are significantly more likely to flourish.”

Among study highlights:

  • Black children in single-parent homes were 3.5 times more likely to live in poverty compared to peers who lived with both parents in a first marriage. Those in stepfamilies are 2.5 times more likely to be poor.

“Clearly Black children in stable, married families are better off financially,” the report says.

  • Odds of Black young adults graduating from college were almost 70% higher for those raised by their own two parents.
  • Among young Black adults, those raised in a single-parent or otherwise nonintact home were nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated by their late 20s, compared to peers who grew up in intact families.

They looked separately at outcomes for Black men and women and found similar patterns. Black men who grew up with biological parents were more likely than others to graduate from college. Their incarceration rates were much lower (14%, compared to 24% for single parents and 26% for stepfamilies). Among Black women, 36% earned a college degree by their late 20s if raised by both parents, compared to 18% from single-parent homes and 25% in stepfamilies.

The pattern holds true in white families, too: 47% in intact families earn a degree, compared to 23% from single-parent households and 18% from stepfamilies. And 5% of young adults in intact white families have been incarcerated, compared to 12% raised in other family structures.

Among white women, more graduate from college than white men, while fewer have ever been jailed. Those growing up with their biological parents fare better than those in other family structures on both measures and for both genders.

Disagreeing about root causes

The March 2020 Current Population Survey says 37% of Black children live with both biological parents, 48% in single-parent households and 4% with a biological parent and a nonbiological parent. That survey said 67% of white children live with biological parents, 21% with a single parent and 6% are part of a stepfamily.

In her op-ed, Cross wrote that not living with biological parents doesn’t cost Black youths as much as it costs white peers, “and being raised in a two-parent family is not equally beneficial.” Using three decades’ data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, she said tracking living arrangements from childhood to adulthood showed less association between family structure and educational success for Blacks than for whites. Living in a two-parent family “does not increase the chances of finishing high school as much for black students as for their white peers.”

Instead, she said differences in resources largely explain the relationship between family structure and outcomes for Black youths. “If this is the case, then what deserves policy attention is not black families’ deviation from the two-parent family model but rather structural barriers such as housing segregation and employment discrimination that produce and maintain racialized inequalities in family life.”

The fact that whites are more advantaged than Blacks was also highlighted in a report, “Long Shadows,” published this month by Brookings Institution and authored by its own and American Enterprise Institute scholars. They examined poverty across three generations and found that “Black Americans are over 16 times more likely to be in the third generation of poverty than non-Hispanic whites are.” They counted as impoverished those in the bottom fifth of America’s family income distribution.

“In terms of household income, “ they wrote, Blacks “see more downward mobility AND less upward mobility than white Americans do. These disparities are particularly large for men; Black men consistently experience less upward and more downward mobility than white men do.”

That study’s co-author, Scott Winship, American Enterprise Institute’s director of poverty studies, said an earlier study he did with Brookings scholar Richard Reeves found “marriage could only explain a small portion of the black-white mobility gap” across two generations.

“We looked at this by ‘marrying’ black women to their brothers (!!) if they were single, until we equalized marriage rates between blacks and whites. The idea is that if more women married, they would marry men who looked somewhat like their brothers. There was still a big black-white gap. That’s in part because black men have lower earnings — and lower employment — than white men,” Winship said by email.

“We didn’t really look at causes in our paper, though we did report that downward mobility from the middle fifth to the bottom fifth was higher for blacks than for whites even for adults who were married.”

To make their comparisons, the Institute for Family Studies researchers used the American Community Survey (2015-2019) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth’s 1997 cohort of children born in the early 1980s, focusing on outcomes when they were 28 or older.

When researchers talk about intact families, they usually mean parents who are married and the biological parents of the children. But the national survey didn’t include marital status, just whether the adults at home are biological parents, said study co-author and Institute for Family Studies research director Wendy Wang.

“College education is a little stronger for white young adults than black young adults,” said Wang, who noted that the strength of the link with family outcomes is similar for both poverty and incarceration.

But “consistent with Cross’ research, the link between family structure and college completion is clearly weaker for Blacks than for whites,” the report said, though both races see advantage to growing up with both biological parents.

Wilcox called it “interesting that black children from intact, two-parent families do better than white children from single-parent families when it comes to poverty, prison, and college graduation. This tells us that strong and stable families matter for kids of all races.” And he called it “striking” that young men — Black or white — from nonintact families are more likely to go to prison than graduate from college.

Wang said one reason two-parent families do better is access to more resources, including both time and often money.

“But I think there’s more to the story. Having two parents taking care, spending more parental time and offering more emotional support, helps. And probably the parents are more likely to work with the school, to find opportunities for their children and be attentive to the kids’ needs,” she said. “All those factors matter, not just income. I think the family structure when they’re growing up is highly related to the children’s outcomes. So I think we also need to pay attention to the family part, not only on the income part.”

Web discussion of study

The Deseret News hosted a webinar on race and family structure this week in conjunction with the institute’s release, moderated by Wilcox and featuring Glenn Loury, an economics professor at Brown University, and Ian Rowe, an American Enterprise Institute resident fellow and CEO of Vertex Partnership Academies, who co-wrote the institute report.

Wilcox started the discussion with a clip of former President Barack Obama talking about being raised by an incredible single mom. “But I sure wish I’d had a father who was not only present, but involved,” he said.

Obama said he didn’t know his dad and has tried his whole life to be for his own wife and daughters “what my father was not for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle where a father’s not at home, where a father’s not helping to raise that son or daughter.”

Rowe said family structure has to be considered when looking at the well-being of Black children, “because if we look at the world solely through the prism of race, and believe that it’s monocausal, that the issues are structural racism or structural barriers, then we won’t deploy solutions that are encouraging the creation of stable two-parent families and engaged fathers.”

Wilcox emphasized the importance of fathers. When they are present and have a good relationship with their kids, he said, among teens “we see less delinquency, less depression, less teen pregnancy.” Dads are also likely to encourage children to seize opportunities and take risks, he said.

Community at all levels matter, said Loury, who said “this is the way that the norms and values in a community come to be formed and embraced by people. I’m thinking about the multiple sexual partners that people must be having. I’m thinking about the willingness or the lack of willingness to make a commitment once the fait accompli of a pregnancy and the child comes into the world. I’m thinking about what are the reinforcing behaviors of the elders in the community and of the institutions like the ministers in the churches and all the rest?”

He added that he doesn’t have answers. “But I’m just thinking, this is something that is very deeply enmeshed in the cultural and social dynamics of a community. And there’s a real hard problem here of how you intervene in that, how you make that change.”