Family Structure

Family structure is often included among the dimensions that scientists study when trying to understand how the availability or lack of resources in families affects child development. Not surprisingly, the configuration of resources in single-parent families is often quite different from that in two-parent families (McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994). Single parents are most often mothers, and single-mother families face much higher rates of poverty than two-parent families. Among working adults, unmarried women maintaining families have the highest risk of living in poverty (Klein and Rones, 1989; Thompson and McDowell, 1994). Many children in single-parent households have fewer relationships with male role models or nonmaternal adults that might be important for their social development (Levine-Coley, 1998). Time constraints faced by single parents may affect their ability to supervise their children and participate in their activities (Amato, 1993; Levine-Coley, 1998). These factors may, in turn, be associated with diminished emotional supports and lower levels of cognitive stimulation in the home environment (Amato, 1993; Levine-Coley, 1998; Miller and Davis, 1997).

The circumstances and adaptations of parents vary greatly among single-parent families, as do the amount and types of resources they make available to their children. Accordingly, there is growing interest in how single parenting comes about and what alternative forms of support exist. On average, children raised by single parents have lower levels of social and academic well-being than do children from intact marriages (Cherlin, 1999; McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994)—a finding that has fueled widespread concern about the large and persistent decline in the proportion of young children living with two parents. Between 1974 and 1997, the proportion not living with two parents rose from 18 to 31 percent (Figure 10-3). Two-parent family structures have declined much more rapidly among black (a 16 percentage point decline) and Hispanic (18 percentage points) than white (10 percentage points) families. As of 1998, only 35 percent of young black children lived with two parents, compared with 63 percent of young Hispanic and 79 percent of young white children. Most of this decline can be accounted for by the increase in the proportion of young children living with never-married mothers rather than divorced or separated mothers. Indeed, in 1998, more than three-quarters of young children living in mother-only families had mothers who had never been married.

What do we know about how these trends may be affecting the development of young children? Studies focused on divorce find that most children have a difficult time during and shortly after the divorce process (Hetherington and Stanley-Hagan, 1999), and that the problems are larger for their behavior than for school achievement (McLanahan, 1997). Nevertheless, although difficulties may reemerge later in life, recent reviews

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