The Debate Over Family Structure and Life Success

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The Debate Over Family Structure and Life Success

Despite the strong correlation between family structure and life success, some still dispute the causal connection.  That’s especially true with regard to the African American community.  The latest example of this appeared in a recent New York Times op-ed titled “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home.”  In it, Harvard sociologist Christina Cross sought to minimize the importance of family structure when it comes to the success of “black kids.”  According to the Cross, “resources, more than family structure” are what really matter “for black kids’ success.”

To support this argument, Cross drew upon her own research on high school completion, which found that the impact of single motherhood was weaker for black students compared to white students on this outcome.  She argued that “living apart from a biological parent does not carry the same cost for black youths as for their white peers and being raised in a two-parent family is not equally beneficial.”

The article’s broader message is that for black children, the intact, married family is not very important; indeed, it is not even close to the importance of structural factors like racial segregation and poverty.

Yet one need only look at the literature to see that this article amounts to nothing more than particularly egregious “cherry-picking” designed to reach a predetermined conclusion.  For instance, it draws on only two studies to make an argument about family structure and black children.  Furthermore, Cross completely ignores a key finding from her own study which shows that the link between family structure and college enrollment was not lower for African Americans than for Whites.

A quick examination of this argument raises two questions:

  1. What does the available research on family structure really tell us about family structure and race? And,
  2. What are the policy implications of this research?
  3. Bradford Wilcox and Ian Rowe of the American Enterprise Institute highlight three important points that jump out from the body of serious research on the subject:

First, for black children, as with all children, family structure matters.

Cross is right to note that for a few outcomes, a two-parent home seems to matter less for black children than for white children...

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