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Implications of Differential Family Change

The potential implications of growing socioeconomic differences in family behavior are profound. Because family behaviors concentrated at lower levels of education tend to be associated with less favorable economic, social, and health outcomes, whereas those concentrated at higher levels tend to be associated with better outcomes, a key concern is how differential patterns of family change reproduce social and economic advantage or disadvantage across generations.

We begin by focusing on potential implications at the individual level. Recognizing that many of the family behaviors examined in the diverging destinies literature are directly or indirectly associated with children’s exposure to singleparent families (e.g., nonmarital childbearing, divorce, early childbearing, unintended childbearing), we use this section to summarize research related to the implications of growing up in a single-parent family. This is a common experience in the U.S., where the proportion of children living with an unpartnered parent reached 25 % in 2012 (Vespa et al. 2013). Most importantly for our discussion of diverging destinies, it is also clear that the prevalence of single-parent family structure is concentrated at the lower end of the educational distribution (Vespa et al. 2013).

In their landmark study, McLanahan and Sandefur (1994) used multiple data sources to demonstrate that children of single mothers fare less well on a range of educational, behavioral, and economic outcomes. Their findings have been corroborated by a large number of studies showing that children from single-mother families complete less education (Powell and Parcel 1997), earn less (Biblarz and Raftery 1993), and exhibit more behavioral problems, including aggression, early childbearing (Wu and Martinson 1993), and delinquency (Matsueda and Heimer 1987). Related research finds that children of divorce have lower average levels of psychological well-being, as measured by happiness, life satisfaction, depression, and anxiety (Amato and Sobolewski 2001; Biblarz and Gottainer 2000; Cherlin et al. 1998; Osborne and McLanahan 2007; Ross and Mirowsky 1999). Children born to unpartnered mothers or to cohabiting mothers are more likely to experience greater family instability (McLanahan 2009; Musick and Michelmore 2015; Osborne et al. 2007) and several studies demonstrate that family instability is associated with less favorable outcomes for children (Cavanagh and Huston 2006; Osborne and McLanahan 2007; Fomby and Cherlin 2007; Wu 1996). It is also clear that instability is much higher among less-educated mothers (Musick and Michelmore 2015). Similar to instability, multi-partner fertility, and the formation of complex families are more prevalent among less-educated parents and are negatively associated with the well-being of both mothers and their children (Carlson and Furstenberg 2006; Manning et al. 2010; Osborne and Ankrum 2015; Waldfogel et al. 2010).

Research on how single-parenthood and related family behaviors contribute to growing differences in children’s resources focuses on the financial, temporal, health, and social resources available to children in different family circumstances. Union dissolution, or family instability more generally, is a well-established correlate of women’s economic well-being (Aassve et al. 2007; Avellar and Smock 2005; Meadows et al. 2008; Smock et al. 1999) and research on single parenthood and children’s outcomes has repeatedly demonstrated the primary importance of economic resources (Carlson and Corcoran 2001; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Smith et al. 1997). The importance of economic resources reflects access to better schools and safer neighborhoods, parents’ emotional well-being and parenting quality, and investment in children’s educational development and recreation activities (e.g., Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997; Duncan et al. 1998; Thomson et al. 1994). It appears that the relevance of relationships between parents’ economic resources and children’s outcomes is increasing in the U.S. Parents in all socioeconomic strata are spending more money on children than in the past, but the gap between highly educated and less-educated parents’ financial investment in children is growing (Lundberg and Pollack 2013).

The transition to single parenthood often entails changes in parenting (Astone and McLanahan 1991; Thomson et al. 1992) that are detrimental to the well-being of children (Amato 2005; Mclanahan and Sandefur 1994; Thomson et al. 1994). Without the economic contributions of a spouse or cohabiting partner, the limited earnings potential of many single mothers often results in economic hardship and necessitates relatively long work hours (Kalil and Ryan 2010; Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan 2002). Economic hardship is associated with less effective parenting (Conger et al. 1992) while long work hours limit the time available for children and contribute to emotional strain that is thought to result in less-engaged and inconsistent parenting (Jackson et al. 2000; Milkie et al. 2004). Several studies show that single mothers have worse emotional and physical health and higher levels of parenting stress relative to their married counterparts (Cooper et al. 2009; McLanahan 2009). Differences in parenting quality may also reflect more direct, shorter term increases in maternal depression following divorce (Amato 2000; Meadows et al. 2008) or the selection into single-parent families of mothers whose personality traits or stressful life experiences make them less effective parents (e.g., Amato 2005). Importantly, the link between relationship transitions and compromised parenting quality appears to be stronger for less-educated mothers (Beck et al. 2008; Cooper et al. 2009). Thus less-educated mothers are not only more likely to experience relationship transitions, but their parenting quality is also more negatively impacted by these transitions.

A large body of closely related research examines how union status is associated with parents’ (typically mothers’) well-being. This work shows that single parenthood is associated with less favorable outcomes for mothers as well, including higher levels of poverty, greater psychological distress, and worse physical health (Amato and James 2010; Brady and Burroway 2012; Johnson and Wu 2002; Meadows et al. 2007, 2008). Single parenthood is also associated with greater residential instability, which has negative implications for both neighborhood resources and access to support (Harknett and Knab 2007).

Research on the aggregate-level implications of family bifurcation focuses on assessing the extent to which the rise in single-parent families in the U.S. and the increasing concentration of these families at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum have contributed to the observed growth in social and economic inequality (Ellwood and Jencks 2004; Esping-Andersen 2007; Gottschalk and Danziger 2005; Martin 2006; Western et al. 2008) and declining intergenerational mobility (Beller 2009; Biblarz et al. 1997; Tach 2015). The results of this research are mixed and depend on the time period, the method of analysis, and measure of inequality or well-being considered (McLanahan and Percheski 2008). For example, Martin (2006) finds that the growing prevalence of families headed by never-married mothers has contributed significantly to the rise in income inequality in the U.S. whereas Western et al. (2008) find that rising inequality within groups is much more important than changes in family structure.

In addition to the role of nonmarital fertility, union dissolution, and family instability more generally, stratification researchers are increasingly focusing on increasing educational assortative mating. Although patterns of spouse pairing are not part of McLanahan’s (2004) focus, it is clear that marriages in the U.S. are increasingly likely to be educationally homogamous at both ends of the educational distribution (Schwartz and Mare 2005). More marriages involving highly educated men and women, combined with greater marital stability at the top of the educational distribution, stronger labor force attachment of highly educated mothers, and growing returns to college education have resulted in an increasing concentration of “power couples” at the high end of the household income distribution (Greenwood et al. 2014). Combined with increased family instability and stagnating wages at the lower end of the educational distribution, patterns of assortative mating and the associated increase in the resemblance of spouses’ earnings have played a significant role in the rise in income inequality in the U.S. (Schwartz 2010).

Some scholars have stressed the importance of the reciprocal, reinforcing nature of relationships between family behavior and inequality. Not only do changes in family behavior, especially the rise in single-parent families, contribute to increase in income inequality, but higher income inequality is also associated with lower marriage rates (Gould and Paserman 2003) and higher divorce rates (Burstein 2007). These aggregate-level relationships are thought to reflect inequality in men’s capacity to meet the economic “bar” for marriage and to fulfill the role of stable provider within marriage (McLanahan and Percheski 2008). In the U.S., these relationships also play an important role in reinforcing racial and ethnic inequalities given the correlation between race and socioeconomic status (education) and large racial differences in family behavior (e.g., Elwood and Jencks 2004; McLanahan and Percheski 2008; Ventura and Bachrach 2000).

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