Kids Are All Right With Just Mom

Heather Wuebker, physorg.com, January 24, 2011

Married, two-parent households are not always best for children, according to a new study by UC Irvine economist David Neumark.

His research shows the increased incarceration of minority men in the U.S. has contributed to more single-parent minority households and fewer minority high school dropouts. The findings are surprising, he says, as they contradict both liberal and conservative views as well as current public policy initiatives.

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“Incarceration rates affect the supply of potential husbands in what is still a largely same-race marriage market,” Neumark says. The study, co-authored by Keith Finlay, Ph.D. ¤07, an assistant professor of economics at Tulane University, appears in the current issue of the quarterly Journal of Human Resources.

Between 1970 and 2000, the researchers found, the nationwide incarceration rate for blacks and Hispanics 18 to 40 increased 7.3 and 1.5 percentage points, respectively, while the rate of incarcerated whites grew by 1 percentage point. At the same time, the number of children living with never-married mothers rose 1 percentage point among whites, 3.4 percentage points among Hispanics and 18.5 percentage points among blacks, while the number of high school dropouts among all races was cut nearly in half.

“The results indicate that the increasing incarceration rate of minority men is directly linked to a decrease in the number of minority high school dropouts,” Neumark says. “By removing potentially lower-quality husbands and fathers from the marriage market via incarceration, it appears, their negative influence on children in the home is reduced. So although a higher incarceration rate leaves in its wake a higher number of never-married mothers, their children actually end up doing better.”

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“Marriage promotion policies presume that marriage itself will directly improve outcomes for children, yet our findings show that encouraging marriage for poor, unmarried mothers may not improve outcomes for their children–and could even worsen them, depending on which marriages form as a result of such policies,” he says.

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