Are All Dads Equal? Biology versus Marriage as a Basis for Paternal Investment

By Hofferth, Sandra L.; Anderson, Kermyt G. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Are All Dads Equal? Biology versus Marriage as a Basis for Paternal Investment


Hofferth, Sandra L., Anderson, Kermyt G., Journal of Marriage and Family


The stepfather relationship provides a source of potential conflict in remarriage families, because the mother and partner may have different interests in the well-being of children from a prior union. Using three different theoretical perspectives-biology, sociology, and selection-this paper examines the engagement, availability, participation, and warmth of residential fathers in married biological parent, unmarried biological parent, married stepparent, and cohabiting father families. The data come from 2,531 children and their parents who were interviewed during the 1997 wave of the Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Biology explains less of father involvement than anticipated once differences between fathers are controlled. Marriage continues to differentiate paternal investment levels, as do age of child and financial responsibility to nonresidential children.

Key Words: biology, children, cohabitation, fathers, marriage, stepfathers.

As a result of the rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce, and remarriage in the last quarter of the 20th century, an increasing proportion of children have lived in a stepfamily; that is, a married two-parent family in which one parent is a biological parent and the other parent is not. In 1990, about 8 out of 10 American children lived with married parents; of these, 16% lived in a stepfamily (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994). Because family structure changes over time, children who do not currently have a stepparent may eventually come to live with one; current estimates suggest that about one third of children in the U.S. will live with a stepparent, usually a stepfather, before reaching age 18 (Bumpass, Raley, & Sweet, 1995).

An increasing proportion of children also live with unmarried parents. In 1990 roughly 2.2 million children in the United States lived with an unmarried parent and his or her partner (Manning & Lichter, 1996). This is likely to be higher today because the number of cohabiting couples rose 50% between 1990 and 1997 alone (Casper & Cohen, 2000). Childbearing occurs in about one fourth of such families. In recent years, public policy has shown a renewed interest in fostering marriage, but informal unions have been ignored. It is important to know whether children living with their mother and a cohabiting partner are as well-off as those living with two married parents. Although cohabiting couples are not as prosperous as married couples, their children have been found to be better off than those of single parents. Including the income of the cohabiting partner was shown to lift two of five poor children in cohabiting unions out of poverty (Manning & Lichter). Although they may be better off financially, their children are still disadvantaged on parental education, employment, and earnings. Relatively little is known about father involvement in such families.

The biological relationship of children to residential parents is important. Research has shown that children living with two biological parents achieve more in school and are better adjusted than children in mother-stepfather families (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Surprisingly, in terms of their risk of high school dropout, teen childbearing, and productive activity as young adults, the latter are more similar to children in single-parent than to those in two-biological parent families (McLanahan & Sandefur). Why is this the case? One of the earliest explanations of this difference in child outcomes was the income difference across family types (Duncan & BrooksGunn, 1997; McLanahan & Sandefur). But if income were the determining factor, children would do as well in two-parent stepfamilies after their custodial parent remarried as in two-biological parent families, because one study found the incomes of both types of families to be comparable (McLanahan & Sandefur). Part of the differential in achievement between children in mother-stepfather and two-biological parent families has been attributed to residential mobility at divorce or remarriage, disrupting the social capital invested in that community (McLanahan & Sandefur). …

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