Do children of single parents become criminals?

Nicole M. King
October 19, 2015
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story - Ben Carson says children of single parents get on welfare, become criminals

Ben Carson came under fire recently for daring to suggest that the natural family is still the best family form for the upraising of children.

Reports the Atlanta Daily World , Carson "recently theorized that kids born out of wedlock or raised by single parents are tied to higher rates of poverty and crime." Continues the story, "Carson has continually railed against what he sees as a decline in traditional values and family structures," in spite of the fact that "he is a product of a single parent household" and that "the current president of the United States, Barack Obama, was raised by a single mother."

But in spite of such media disdain for Dr. Carson's views, the research is on his side. Not only in delinquent behavior, but in all other outcomes, the children of continuously married, two-parent families fare better than do children from all other family forms.

The New Research - Children in broken homes - twenty more years of research

Almost two decades ago, the flagship journal Social Forces published a landmark 1994 study analyzing the well-being of children living in different kinds of family structure. Now Elizabeth Thomson and Sara McLanahan, two of the authors of that original study, have published a retrospective commentary highlighting "the article's popularity as a referent point for subsequent research" and underscoring the degree to which "subsequent research [has] confirmed many of [their] findings."

Using nationally representative data, the original 1994 study established that children living with married biological parents enjoyed significant advantages in academic performance and socio-emotional development over children living with stepparents, cohabiting parents, divorced single mothers, and never-married single mothers. This original study traced a large fraction of this advantage to differences in household income, a smaller fraction to differences in parenting practices.

In the decades since the publication of the original study, researchers have confirmed the overall pattern it uncovered. These newer studies have, in fact, uncovered considerable evidence discrediting progressives' claims that cohabitation is a perfectly functional replacement for traditional marriage. As Thomson and McClanahan remark, "The new research has shown that cohabiting biological parents are in many ways more similar to cohabiting stepfamilies than to married biological parents." It turns out that both cohabiting biological parents and cohabiting stepfamilies are "economically disadvantaged in comparison to married biological parents or stepfamilies." What is more, new studies have found that, compared to married biological parents, "cohabiting biological parents may also provide lower quality parenting" and "are more likely to separate."

To some degree, Thomson and McLanahan report, "new research has demonstrated the importance of family instability per se." Recent studies have established that "the cumulative number of changes [in family structure] may be independently and negatively associated with outcomes during childhood and young adulthood." Nor should this finding be surprising, given that recent studies have shown that "instability in family structure is associated with lower quality parenting." On the other hand, however, Thomson and McLanahan highlight recent studies showing that "children living with single mothers do not appear to gain from the stability of that family form."

Besides giving researchers a fuller understanding of why non-traditional family forms may compromise children's well-being, recent studies have given them an international perspective unavailable in 1994. In explaining the "lack of research in other welfare regimes, especially the Nordic countries," Thomson and McLanahan stress that "single mothers [in such regimes] received greater transfers and were better off than single mothers in the United States." However, in recent years researchers have established that these economic advantages have not erased the disadvantages children live under when they live in non-traditional families. Indeed, Thomson and McLanahan point to "recent research [that] has demonstrated quite convincingly that family structure is strongly associated with children's well-being, even in the very generous Nordic welfare states." Thomson and McLanahan cite, in particular, a 2010 study finding that in 24 different countries, "children living with single mothers had fewer material resources, less parental support, and poorer health than those living with two original parents."

As they conclude their commentary, Thomson and McLanahan emphasize the urgent relevance of the research that has confirmed and amplified their 1994 findings on the relationship between family structure and children's well-being: "The fact that single-, step- and cohabiting-parent families continue to grow and the fact that they are associated with poorer outcomes for parents and children means that the implications of today's and tomorrow's research on these topics are enormous for both individuals and the societies in which they live."