Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Family Structure and Children's Socioeconomic Attainment: A Canadian Sample

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Family Structure and Children's Socioeconomic Attainment: A Canadian Sample

Article excerpt

WITH THE PROLIFERATION of different family forms in many western countries over the last few decades, research investigating the influence of family structure on children's socioeconomic attainment has expanded dramatically, particularly in the United States. Unfortunately, longitudinal research on this topic has been very limited in Canada. One exception is a study by Strohschein, Roos, and and Brownel (2009) that assessed the relationship between family structure histories and high school completion using a 1984 birth cohort in the province of Manitoba. This study found that, compared to children from stable two-parent families, children who experienced any change in family structure were less likely to graduate from high school. A key limitation of this study, however, was that there were no data available on household income. Many studies have shown that family income is associated with children's high school graduation, college attendance, and years of education, even after controlling for family structure (Brooks-Gunn, Guo, and Furstenberg 1993; Haveman and Wolfe 1994; Haveman, Wolfe, and Spaulding 1991). Consequently, it is possible that household income may have a greater relative effect on predicting children's high school graduation than family structure per se.

A recent synthesis of Canadian research on the relationship between income and children's developmental and psychosocial outcomes has found that income's effect on child outcomes is greater for children living in poverty, and that children's outcomes worsen the longer they live in poverty (McEwan and Stewart 2014). Although this appears to support a policy agenda aimed at improving household income, the authors note that federal and provincial benefits that only marginally improve income have minimal benefits on child outcomes. Thus, to improve child outcomes, policies that provide larger income benefits to children residing in poor families than children from socioeconomically advantaged families are necessary.

It is well known that single-parent families are more likely than two-parent families to live in poverty (Fields 2003; Williams et al. 2013). In 2005, 26 percent of single-parent families and 6.8 percent of two-parent families were living in poverty in Canada (Taylor 2007). Children whose parents lack financial resources are less likely to receive high-quality child care, education, health care, material, and social goods (Becker 1964; Coleman 1988; McLanahan and Percheski 2008), and these differential resources can accumulate across the life course, leaving children from socio-economically disadvantaged families with less opportunity to build their human capital.

It is now a widely held view that children raised in single-parent families are more disadvantaged than children from two-parent families with respect to their educational attainment and subsequent life chances, and that much of this disadvantage is attributable to the limited economic resources and parental engagement in single-parent families (Biblarz and Raftery 1999; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Sun and Li 2001). However, most research on the association between family structure and children's socioeconomic status has been conducted in the United States, where other related sources of disadvantage may have more important effects on children's outcomes than single parenthood (Thomson and McLanahan 2012). For example, approximately one-half of all African American families live in single-parent households (U.S. Census Bureau 2010), and studies that do not account for race/ethnicity (e.g., Pong, Dronkers, and Hampden-Thompson 2003) may overestimate the relative importance of family structure on children's status attainment.

It is also conceivable that poor school quality and greater neighborhood disadvantage have a larger relative influence on children's attainment outcomes in different regions of the United States than in Canada. Compared to the poorest neighborhoods in Canada, there is significantly more low-income segregation, racial/ethnic segregation, and violent crime in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the United States (Oreopoulos 2008). …

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