Poverty, Single-Parent Households, and Youth At-Risk Behavior: An Empirical Study

By Garis, Dalton | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Poverty, Single-Parent Households, and Youth At-Risk Behavior: An Empirical Study


Garis, Dalton, Journal of Economic Issues


This is a study of the relationship between supportive family attributes for an eighth grade cohort and their twelfth grade involvement in drug and/or alcohol use, and sexual activity, or, as it is called, "at-risk" behavior. The rise in the number of children living in official poverty and the increase in the number of children living in families headed by a single parent have led some to assume that this situation has caused an increase in at-risk behavior by youth; this paper tests that assumption. First cited are studies from the literature that point to a significant decline in the number of two-parent families over the past few decades, an increase in the number of children living in official poverty, and the simultaneous rise in drug and/or alcohol use and youth sexual activity. Following the background sections is a discussion of the hypotheses to be tested; study results, analysis and discussion follow.

There is a position held by policymakers and others that a vicious cycle exists between at-risk behavior and poverty, that youth at-risk behavior begets poverty, and poverty begets at-risk behavior. At the center of all this is the question of family structure and how it is both a cause and an effect of changes in youth at-risk behavior and poverty. There is little doubt that youth sexual activity and youth drug and alcohol abuse have the power to stunt human development to the detriment of economic outcomes. How many of the changes in youth at-risk behavior are due to poverty and how much due to changes in family structure?

Background

It is impressive how many of the recent studies of adolescence and youth, only a few of which are cited here, include the word "crisis" or "risk" in their titles [Lerner 1995; Dryfoos 1990]. Interest in the topic of how structural changes in the family have negatively affected the lives of children is widespread. Studies of the effects on children and youth being raised by a single parent, or the offspring of divorced parents, include those of Judith Wallerstein [1989] and Mavis Hetherington and Josephine Arasteh [1988]; similar studies exist for youth drug and alcohol use (National Survey Results on Drug Use).

The Rise in Single-Parent Families

The number of children living with a single parent has increased dramatically since the 1960s.

In the 1985-89 period, there were about 2.2 million premarital births compared to about 700,000 premarital births for the 1960-64 period.... Between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of two-parent family groups has declined for Whites, Blacks and persons of Hispanic origin (who may be of any race) while father-child and mother-child family groups have increased [Lugaila 1992, 11]. Mother-child family groups have increased most dramatically due to the rise in divorce and births outside of marriage [Lugaila 1992, 20].

Arthur Norton and Louisa Miller [1992, 9,12] state that

Premarital childbearing, separation and divorce have caused one-parent family groups to become much more prevalent (and accepted) in the United States in the last 20 years. Now, about 3 out of 10 family groups are maintained by just one parent, but in 1970 only 1 out of 10 were.... These societal changes have led to American children today living in increasingly varied and complex living arrangements.

Just experiencing the divorce of their parents can itself have profound negative effects on children and youth. A longitudinal study by Wallerstein [1989] on the aftermath of divorce, which follows subjects for 15 years, sheds light on the problems of family logistics, i.e., the ease with which children can access both their parents. Divorce challenges parents who want to continue to raise their children with the participation of both parents because the divorce does not necessarily mean an end to the disputes that caused the divorce in the first place [1989, xviii]. The study concentrates on the effects of divorce on children, showing that these effects in terms of their long term consequences have been too little regarded by social scientists in the past [1989, xi]. …

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