long blog post #2 Reproduction of the Inequalities

McLanahan, Sara and Christine Percheski. 2008. “Family Structure and the Reproduction of Inequalities.” Annual Review of Sociology. Vol.34, pp.257-276.

Family Structure and the Reproduction of the Inequalities

In 1960 only 6% of children in the United States lived with a single parent. Today over half of all children are expected to spend some time in a single-parent family before reaching the age of 18. The author begins by looking at trends in single parenthood and income inequality over the past 50 years in the associations between these trends. We also look at race and class differences in family structure trends to measure the concentration of single parenthood in particular groups. We then review several arguments for the reason that income inequality may affect family structure, with attention given to evidence of a causal link. Finally, we look at how family structure contributes to the reproduction of inequalities be creating barriers to upward mobility and by exacerbating pre-existing gender and racial disparities.


• Single-mother families, are measured by Census data, include both lone mothers and cohabiting couples.

• By 2000, almost 50% of all no marital births were to a cohabiting mother, and between ¼ and 2/5 of children were expected to experience parental cohabitation during childhood

• Two-parent married couple families have also become more diverse. Between 11% and 18% of children now live with a step parent at some point during childhood.

• There are notable differences by race and education, with increases in single motherhood most pronounced among the most disadvantage groups.(Ellwood & Jecks 2004)

• Unmarried mothers account for nearly 2 and 3 births to mother without high school education but only 9% of births to mothers with a college education.(Kennedy & Bumpass 2007)

• These educational differences in non-marital birth rates combined with differences in divorce and remarriage rates produce a scenario in which children with mothers in the bottom educational quartile are almost twice as likely to live with a single mother at some point during childhood as children with a mother in the top quartile.(McLanahan 2004)

• More than 2/3 of black children are born to unmarried mothers compared with less than ¼ of white children and between 2/5 and ½ of Hispanic children.(Ventura & Bachrach 2000, Kennedy & Bumpass 2007)

• Between 1980 and 2000, the single-motherhood rate among women with a high school education or less was over 30 percentage points higher among black women then among white women.

• In contrast, Hispanic women without a high school education have lower rates of single motherhood then white women in 2000.

• Although the pattern of family structure by race and education is complex, the overall trend is clear: o Advantaged women continue to raise their children in the context of marriage, whereas less advantaged women are increasingly likely to spend some time as single mothers.

• Martin (2006) argues that family structure explains more of the variance in family income in periods of low inequality growth and less of the variance in high periods of growth.

• Regression analysis (which typically control for a wide range of demographic and labor market factors, such as increasing returns to education, immigration and women’s employment rates) tend to report smaller estimated effects of family structure than decomposition analysis.


• The inequality in men’s wages increase the gains to women of searching for the best possible husband. As a result women marry later when wage inequality is high. (Becker 1981)

• Loughran (2002) finds that increases in male wage inequality over time in geographically, educationally and racially defined marriage markets can account for between 7% and 18% of the decline in marriage between 1970 and 1990 for white women, but for considerably less of a decline for black women.

• Increases in income inequality make it harder for couples at the bottom of the income distribution to reach the bar.’

• Edwin and colleagues interviewed a large number of low income single mothers and unmarried parents. These low income parents placed a high value on marriage but also believed that a married couple must maintain a certain standard of living, which includes a house, a car, and stable employment.

• Smock and colleagues (2005) also find that couples believ they should wait to marry until they obtain financial stability.

• Clarkberg (1999) finds that men and women who have relatively high levels of economic wellbeing compared with peers of similar educational and family backgrounds have twice the probability of marriage, even after controlling for absolute levels of earnings

• Wage inequalities may also make men in the bottom half of the income distribution less attractive as marriage partners. Despite the increase in women’s employment, the male bread winner role continues to be an important norm.(Sweeney 2002)

• Hoffman (2008) finds that once selection into teenage motherhood is taken into account, early childbearing does not adversely affect a woman’s own earnings, her spouse’s earnings, or her income from public assistance. However, a teenager birth does reduce educational attainment.

• Hoffman’s findings suggest that women who become teenage mothers may have had low opportunity costs in terms of lost earnings or wages.

• Looking at the older age group, Miller (2006) finds that even short delays in motherhood increase women’s cumulative early career earnings (from age 21 to 34) by approximately 10% per year of delay and that the effect is much stronger for women with college educations or in professional and managerial occupations.

• While the opportunity cost of early childbearing was increasing for highly skilled women, other forces were reducing the direct costs of early childbearing and single motherhood for women from disadvantaged backgrounds.

o First, the decline in the stigma associated with single motherhood and sex outside marriage

o Second, the expansion of welfare rights and benefits that make it easier for a woman to raise a child alone.


• Children of parents with poor interpersonal skills who experience a lower quality of parenting likely have worse outcomes than other children, regardless if they live with both parents.

• A couple examples to get rid of bias:

o If parents separate when one child is 10 and the other child is 5, the older sibling experienced 8 years of father absence before his eighteenth birthday, whereas the other sibling experienced 13 years of father absence. This approach assumes that the longer a child lives in a father-absent family, the greater chance there will be a negative effect.

o Other researchers examined living in a stepfather family, in these studies, one child has typically experienced a divorce, and the second child (half-sibling) has lived with both biological parents since birth. Few sibling studies compare unmarried two-parent families, making it difficult to determine whether parental cohabitation is equivalent to marriage in its effects on child outcomes. The conclusion to these studies turned out to be very mixed.

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