Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Family Structure Histories and High School Completion: Evidence from a Population-Based Registry

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Family Structure Histories and High School Completion: Evidence from a Population-Based Registry

Article excerpt

Families represent one of the most important mechanisms for the transmission of human and social capital with implications for intergenerational mobility and a successful transition to adulthood (Biblarz and Raftery 1993; Musick and Mare 2004). Changes in family composition, evidenced by increases in both marital instability and nonmarital childbearing over the past 30 years (Seltzer 2000), have raised questions about the consequences for children's achievements. An ongoing debate among researchers who investigate the relationship between family structure and educational outcomes involves discerning whether it is the type of family a child lives in (family structure) or the stress of adapting to a marital transition (family instability) that matters most. Although there is evidence to support each position, their shared weakness is an inability to locate family structure and family instability within the context of a complete family structure history.

In this paper, we apply a life course approach to better articulate the influence of family structure histories on high school completion. We use data from a population-based data registry for the 1984 Manitoba birth cohort to select a sample of children born or adopted at birth into a married two-parent household. We construct family structure histories for each child, paying attention to the type and timing of changes in family structure that transpire from birth to the age of 18 and derive variables that capture the marital history of parents prior to the birth of the child. We then test which aspects of these family structure histories predict high school graduation by the age of 20.


Family Structure or Family Instability?

Studies that compare educational outcomes across family types assessed at only one point during childhood generally find that children in single-parent households are less likely to complete high school relative to children in intact two-biological-parent households (Astone and McLanahan 1991; Deleire and Kalil 2002; Ermisch and Francesconi 2001; Evans, Kelley and Wanner 2001; Haveman, Wolfe, and Spaulding 1991; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994). These differences are attributed to structural deficiencies inasmuch as living in a single-parent household is associated with greater economic hardship and the absence of an additional authority figure to provide attention and supervision. The literature demonstrates, however, that it is more than just parental absence: children living in step-parent households also fare more poorly in school than children in two-biological-parent households (Biblarz and Gottainer 2000; Evans et al. 2001). It has been suggested that children living in step-parent households may not benefit from the additional income and supervision that a step-parent potentially brings to the household, if the step-parent must divert resources to nonresident children from previous relationships (Manning and Smock 1999), or if children must compete with the step-parent for the attention of the biological parent (Booth and Dunn 1994).

Criticism that snapshot assessments of family structure do not adequately represent the dynamic aspects of household composition over the course of childhood has led some researchers to advocate for the importance of family instability (Hill, Yeung, and Duncan 2001). Changes in family structure are viewed as stressful events that require parents and children to renegotiate and reorganize their relationships and their lives. Whether a child lives in a single-, step-, or two-biological-parent household at one point in time is seen as less influential than the upheaval that marital instability introduces into children's lives (Fomby and Cherlin 2007). Studies that follow children as they experience changes in family structure show that children whose parents were married at initial interview but later divorce are less likely to finish high school than children whose parents remain married (Painter and Levine 2000; Pong and Ju 2000; Sun and Li 2001). …

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