Married, two-parent households are not always best for children, according to a new study by UC Irvine economist David Neumark.
His research shows the increased incarceration of minority men in the U.S. has contributed to more single-parent minority households and fewer minority high school dropouts. The findings are surprising, he says, as they contradict both liberal and conservative views as well as current public policy initiatives.
“Previous research has found that children who grow up in an environment other than a married, two-person household are more likely to repeat a grade, be expelled or suspended, or receive treatment for an emotional problem,” Neumark says. “Our research shows that policy efforts to create more married, two-parent households won’t necessarily improve outcomes for children and – depending on which spouse is available – may even worsen them.”
Using U.S. Census data and state-by-state incarceration rates, he and a colleague found evidence linking decreases in minority high school dropout rates to the growing incarceration rate for minority men between 18 and 40 – because of the latter’s effect on marriage prospects for minority women.
“Incarceration rates affect the supply of potential husbands in what is still a largely same-race marriage market,” Neumark says. The study, co-authored by Keith Finlay, Ph.D. ’07, an assistant professor of economics at Tulane University, appears in the current issue of the quarterly Journal of Human Resources.
Between 1970 and 2000, the researchers found, the nationwide incarceration rate for blacks and Hispanics 18 to 40 increased 7.3 and 1.5 percentage points, respectively, while the rate of incarcerated whites grew by 1 percentage point. At the same time, the number of children living with never-married mothers rose 1 percentage point among whites, 3.4 percentage points among Hispanics and 18.5 percentage points among blacks, while the number of high school dropouts among all races was cut nearly in half.
“The results indicate that the increasing incarceration rate of minority men is directly linked to a decrease in the number of minority high school dropouts,” Neumark says. “By removing potentially lower-quality husbands and fathers from the marriage market via incarceration, it appears, their negative influence on children in the home is reduced. So although a higher incarceration rate leaves in its wake a higher number of never-married mothers, their children actually end up doing better.”
This, he says, has important implications for current policies such as the 1996 welfare reforms and the Healthy Marriage Initiative included in the 2006 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reauthorization. Targeted at low-income, single mothers, these policies encourage the formation of married, two-parent families, Neumark says.
“Marriage promotion policies presume that marriage itself will directly improve outcomes for children, yet our findings show that encouraging marriage for poor, unmarried mothers may not improve outcomes for their children – and could even worsen them, depending on which marriages form as a result of such policies,” he says.
Instead, Neumark advises policymakers to focus on strengthening parental skills and enhancing low-income family environments.