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Does Family Structure Affect Children's Educational Outcomes?

  • Donna K. Ginther
  • Robert A. Pollak

This paper makes two contributions. First, it adds to the growing literature describing correlations between children's educational outcomes and family structure. Although popular discussions focus on the distinction between two-parent families and single-parent families, McLanahan and Sandefur [1994] show that outcomes for stepchildren are similar to outcomes for children in single-parent families. McLanahan and Sandefur describe their results as showing that the crucial distinction is between children who were reared by both biological parents and children who were not. This description is misleading. This paper shows that educational outcomes for both types of children in blended families -- stepchildren and their half-siblings who are the joint biological children of both parents -- are similar to each other and substantially worse than outcomes for children reared in traditional nuclear families. We conclude that, as a description of the data, the crucial distinction is between children reared in traditional nuclear families (i.e., families in which all children are the joint biological children of both parents) and children reared in other family structures (e.g., single-parent families or blended families). The paper's second contribution is to clarify the question, What is the effect of family structure on outcomes for children?' Interpreted literally, the question asks about the effect of one endogenous variable on another. We argue for reformulating the family structure question by specifying some explicit counterfactual, and express a preference for a policy-relevant counterfactual. As an example, we suggest considering the effect of reducing the marriage penalty' in the earned-income tax credit (EITC) that makes the credit essentially unavailable to two-earner couples. The EITC marriage penalty counterfactual, like any policy-relevant counterfactual, focuses attention on outcomes for those children whose parent's behavior is affected by the incentives created by the policy change.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 9628.

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Date of creation: Apr 2003
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Publication status: published as Ginther, Donna and Robert A. Pollak. "Family Structure and Children's Educational Outcomes: Blended Families, Stylized Facts, and Descriptive Regressions." Demography (November 2004).
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:9628
Note: ED LS
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  1. Roger Wojtkiewicz, 1993. "Simplicity and complexity in the effects of parental structure on high school graduation," Demography, Springer, vol. 30(4), pages 701-717, November.
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  13. Antecol, Heather & Bedard, Kelly & Helland, Eric, 2001. "Does Single Parenthood Increase the Probability of Teenage Promiscuity, Drug Use, and Crime? Evidence from Divorce Law Changes," University of California at Santa Barbara, Economics Working Paper Series qt3fc7n20b, Department of Economics, UC Santa Barbara.
  14. C-B. An & R. H. Haveman & B. L. Wolfe, . "The "window problem" in studies of children's attainments: A methodological exploration," Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers 977-92, University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.
  15. Zvi Eckstein & Kenneth I. Wolpin, 1999. "Why Youths Drop Out of High School: The Impact of Preferences, Opportunities, and Abilities," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 67(6), pages 1295-1340, November.
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  18. Angrist, Joshua D, 1990. "Lifetime Earnings and the Vietnam Era Draft Lottery: Evidence from Social Security Administrative Records," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 80(3), pages 313-36, June.
  19. John F. Ermisch & Marco Francesconi, 2001. "Family structure and children's achievements," Journal of Population Economics, Springer, vol. 14(2), pages 249-270.
  20. R. A. Wojtkiewicz, . "Simplicity and complexity in the effects of parental structure on high school graduation," Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers 993-93, University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.
  21. David M. Blau, 1999. "The Effect Of Income On Child Development," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 81(2), pages 261-276, May.
  22. Geronimus, Arline T & Korenman, Sanders, 1992. "The Socioeconomic Consequences of Teen Childbearing Reconsidered," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 107(4), pages 1187-214, November.
  23. Kevin Lang & Jay L. Zagorsky, 2001. "Does Growing up with a Parent Absent Really Hurt?," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 36(2), pages 253-273.
  24. John Bound & Gary Solon, 1998. "Double Trouble: On the Value of Twins-Based Estimation of the Return to Schooling," NBER Working Papers 6721, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  26. Manski, C.F. & Sandefur, G.D. & Mclanahan, S. & Powers, D., 1990. "Alternative Estimates Of The Effect Of Family Stucture During Adolescence On Hight School Graduation," Working papers 90-31, Wisconsin Madison - Social Systems.
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  28. Behrman, Jere R & Rosenzweig, Mark R & Taubman, Paul, 1994. "Endowments and the Allocation of Schooling in the Family and in the Marriage Market: The Twins Experiment," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 102(6), pages 1131-74, December.
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