This article is part of a new Education Next series on the state of the American family. The full series will appear in our Spring 2015 issue to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 release of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (generally referred to as the Moynihan Report).
One of the most alarming social trends in the past 40 years is the increasing educational disadvantage of children raised in low-income families. Differences between low- and high-income children in reading and math achievement are much larger now than they were several decades ago, as are differences in college graduation rates.
What might account for these increasing achievement and attainment gaps? One obvious suspect is income inequality itself, which has increased dramatically during the same period. But income inequality is hardly the only factor that may be widening the gaps. We focus here on the central concern of the Moynihan Report: the rise of single-parent families, which has been much more rapid among those with low incomes than among those with high incomes, and indeed has fueled some of the increasing income inequality.
The Moynihan Report focused on black families, but the rise in single-parent families transcends racial and ethnic boundaries. Data from the Current Population Survey show that between 1960 and 2013, the proportion of black children living with a single parent more than doubled (from 22 percent to 55 percent); for white children, the percentage more than tripled (from 7 percent to 22 percent).
Turning from race to class differences, we find that more than half (51 percent) of low-income children entering adolescence were living in single-parent families around the time the Moynihan Report was published. This figure jumped to 75 percent over the next three decades. The corresponding increase for adolescents in high-income families over that period is much smaller, from 3 percent to 6 percent. If the single-parent family structure adversely affects children’s educational outcomes, then the difference in trends across income groups could possibly account for more of the growing gap in educational attainment between rich and poor children than income inequality itself.
In the analysis presented below, we examine the relationships between children’s completed schooling and a number of factors, including single-parent family structure. We find that, while statistically significant, the strength of the relationship between living with a single-parent family and educational attainment is comparable to the relationships for family size and the age of the mother at the time of the child’s birth and weaker than the relationship for maternal schooling. Troublingly, however, the negative relationship between living with a single parent and educational attainment has increased markedly since the time the Moynihan Report was published. In other words, American children raised in single-parent homes appear to be at a greater disadvantage educationally than ever before.
Our analysis is based on data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), spanning 31 cohorts of children born between 1954 and 1985. The PSID has followed a nationally representative sample of families and their children since 1968. Our sample consists of 6,072 individuals from whom information was collected on parental income and other characteristics between the ages of 14 and 16 and on completed schooling at age 24. Our key measure is the amount of time between the ages of 14 and 16 that the child lived with a single parent. Throughout our analyses, we adjust for three other family characteristics that may separately influence a child’s educational attainment: mother’s age at the child’s birth, level of schooling the mother had completed when the child was 14 years old, and number of siblings born to the child’s mother. In some analyses, we also adjust for the average parental income when the child was between the ages of 14 and 16. Additional control variables include the child’s sex and race/ethnicity, whether the child was the mother’s firstborn, and the age of the child’s mother at her first birth.
On average over the 31-year period, children the PSID followed into early adulthood completed 13.2 years of schooling by age 24, and 22.4 percent had completed college. They spent 22 percent of the years between ages 14 and 16 living with a single parent, with 26 percent spending any of those years living with a single parent. And their mothers were about 26 when these children were born and had completed 12.2 years of education by the time their children were 14 years old.
The educational attainment gap for adults who lived in single-parent families in adolescence widened considerably over this period. Figure 1a shows the evolution of the gap in years of completed schooling by age 24 between children who, between the ages of 14 and 16, never lived with a single parent and those who lived with a single parent at least one of the three years. While both groups saw increases in years of completed schooling over time, the gap between them widened from 0.63 years for those who were age 24 in 1978 to 1.32 years for those who were age 24 in 2009. This widening appears to accelerate around the mid- to late 1990s. Figure 1b shows similar trends in college completion rates, with the gap between the groups roughly doubling over the 31 years, from 12 to 26 percentage points.