Family Structure and Race: Three Facts You Didn't Know

For those who doubt that family structure denialism is a thing in the black communities, one need only open the pages of The New York Times for yet another effort “to minimize or deny the importance of marriage and family structure.” The Times ran with an op-ed titled “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home,” which sought to minimize the importance of family structure when it comes to “black kids’ success.” According to the article, resources, more than family structure” are what really matter “for black kids’ success.”

In making this claim, the author, Harvard sociologist Christina Cross, drew on 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 so 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 the article amounts to a particularly egregious exercise in cherry-picking, drawing on only two studies to make the argument about family structure and black children. In fact, Cross completely passes over a finding from her own study that showed the link between family structure and college enrollment was not lower for African-Americans.

So, what does the research on family structure really tell us about family structure and race? Three points jump out from the research—points that were obscured by this Times article.

For black children, family structure matters. 

Cross is right to note that for some outcomes, a two-parent home seems to matter less for black children than for white children. This is what she finds in her new study of family structure and completing high school on time, echoing what some previous studies have found about the impact of family structure on black children’s educational attainment. But these findings do not mean that it is a “myth” that a stable, two-parent family matters for black kids. Even her own study indicates that black children who spent their entire childhood in a single-mother household are about 15 percentage points less likely to complete high school on time, compared to black children who grew up in a two-parent home. This is not a small effect.

More importantly, Cross’ op-ed on the “myth” of the two-parent home passes over a large and growing literature on race and family structure that suggests different conclusions than the ones she offers. Take, for instance, the work that MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues have done on education using a sample of thousands of schoolchildren across Florida. In their study, they find that disadvantaged boys today are more likely to struggle behaviorally in school (in terms of absences and suspensions) than girls, in part, because boys are more likely to grow up in an unmarried home, which ends up having a disparately negative impact. What’s more: they show that this story applies just as much to black boys as other boysAutor summed up the work this way: “Boys particularly seem to benefit more from being in a married household or committed household—with the time, attention and income that brings.” 

Racial inequality is rooted in structure and family life.

When it comes to explaining why black children are more likely to flounder in school, Cross points the finger, not at the family factor but at other, larger “structural barriers” like poverty and racial segregation, which she thinks matter more. Her move is common in today’s discussions of racial inequality. Cross and others who make this kind of argument about racial inequality are not entirely wrong, of course, but what they overlook are the ways in which many of the structural barriers they gesture towards often have a family angle. 

To talk about the “myth of the two-parent home” when it comes to thinking about “black kids’ success” does a profound disservice to confronting racial inequality in America.

Take, for instance, a new study by Penn State sociologist John Iceland on racial gaps in poverty and affluence—two big structural barriers facing black families and their children today. In looking at trends over the last half century, Iceland shows that structural factors like education play a big role accounting for persistent racial inequality in poverty and affluence, as Cross might expect. But guess what was the biggest factor in his models? That’s right: family structure. In his words, “the effect of family structure grew in importance and became the most significant factor among blacks—not only for poverty, but also for affluence, explaining about a third of the disparity in poverty and affluence in 2015” between blacks and whites. It turns out, then, that the “resources” that are supposed to matter more in accounting for racial inequality among children than family structure per se are themselves often linked to the stability and structure of family life. 

It takes a father-present village. 

Indeed, one structural factor that looms large in discussions of racial inequality are “neighborhood effects”—referring to everything from racial segregation to concentrated poverty—that spill over into the lives of black children and their families. But here again, it turns out that family structure is a big part of the neighborhood story on outcomes ranging from economic mobility to incarceration. 

In fact, according to new research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues, one of the strongest predictors of a big racial gap in adult income between black and white men traces back to the absence of black fathers in the neighborhood where they grew up.

By contrast, black boys who grew up in neighborhoods with lots of black fathers (and, the study finds, married adults) are much more likely to earn about as much money as white men when they grow up. This study suggests, then, that family structure matters not just for individual households but for whole neighborhoods. 

“That is a pathbreaking finding,” William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist, told The Times. “They’re talking about the presence of fathers in a given census tract.” In other words, more black fathers in the village translates into less racial economic inequality for black men.

To talk about the “myth of the two-parent home” when it comes to thinking about “black kids’ success” does a profound disservice to confronting racial inequality in America. While family structure is certainly not the only factor implicated in this divide, it is a central factor when it comes to racial gaps on outcomes as varied as school suspensions, poverty, and affluence.

If we wish to close the racial gap in America, it is not enough to only pull the levers of public policy to address the structural barriers in the path of black kids. We must also figure out new ways to increase the share of black children being raised in intact families and in neighborhoods with lots of father-present families.

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