Two, One or No Parents? Children’s Living Arrangements and Educational Outcomes Around the World


Prior research—mostly on the US and Europe—suggests that children who grow up without one or both parents in the household are at risk for a host of negative educational outcomes (Magnuson and L. M. Berger, 2009).  This essay builds on this research to explore whether this finding holds true in all regions of the world.

Key questions:

1. Is family structure associated with children’s educational outcomes, even when other possible factors explaining differences are taken into account (for example, parental education, family wealth, and parental employment)?

2. Is family structure associated with children’s feelings of being connected to their school and their perceptions of how relevant school is for them?

3. Are there important differences in the association between family structure and children’s education between major world regions?

Data Sources: 

This essay draws on original analyses of two international datasets to answer these questions. The first was the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which was used to examine the effect of family structure on educational outcomes among 15-year-olds in countries that are mostly considered middle- or high-income countries, though some countries in PISA may be considered low income.  The 2000 PISA data were also used to supplement these analyses.The second was from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which was used to examine the effect of family structure on educational outcomes among similar youth in low-income countries.

Results & Discussion: 

As expected, among high- and middle-income countries, children living with two parents are more likely than are those living with one or no parents to follow a normal progression though school, and to experience higher levels of reading literacy. These results suggest that in many countries, parents serve as an important source of support and resources that can benefit their children’s education, with greater resources coming from two parents. In many European countries, parents’ skills and resources have a strong association with children’s cognitive abilities, and family conditions during childhood (including the number of parents children live with) play a key role in children’s long-term life chances.

However, the results of this study also indicate that the positive effects of living with two parents were much less consistent in low-income countries. There were few differences between children living with one versus two parents in many low income countries once all family and individual background factors were considered, and there was even an advantage to living with a single parent for some educational outcomes in some countries.

There are several potential non-competing explanations for why family structure seems to matter less in low-income countries. It is possible that family structure simply does not matter as much for children’s education in low-income countries where many obstacles to good educational outcomes remain. These obstacles are likely to affect children in all types of families, and include the availability and cost of schools, teacher quality, parental health, children’s health and nutrition, seasonal labor demands, and attitudes toward work and school. Thus, rates of school enrollment and children’s normal progression through school in low-income countries may be much more sensitive to these types of factors than to the number of parents in the household.

Labor migration may also play a role in the relationship between family structure and educational outcomes in low-income countries. When a parent is absent from the household because he or she is sending money home while working in a more economically-advanced area, children may experience less disadvantage from a parent’s absence than may children whose parent was never part of the household or whose parents divorced. Additional income may even place such households at an advantage. For example, in South Africa, households receiving remittances were found to be 50 percent more likely to keep children in school.51 Thus, in low-income countries, incentives for separating the family in order to support it are greater than in high- and middle-income countries. Further exploration of the reasons that children may be living with only one or no parents, and more detail on who is in these households (many children that are not living with their parents may be living with grandparents, for example) will help us understand the processes occurring within these families that may benefit or harm children’s educational attainment and achievement.

Investigators: Mindy E. Scott, Laurie F. DeRose, Laura H. Lippman, and Elizabeth Cook

Read full study here

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