• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 20th December, 2007

Time to remarry politics to the evidence on family life?

George W Bush, Tony Blair, David Cameron, administrations and government oppositions before them – at one time or another all seem to be drawn to the marriage counseling business. In George Bush’s case it happened early on – based on a reading of statistics that show that kids who live with their mothers but not their fathers tend to be poorer and to have more health and behavior problems than children who live with both parents. So federal funds started flowing to such programs as 8 Habits of a Successful Marriage, Bridal Bliss for premarital couples, and How to Make a Good Thing Better aimed at African American couples. [For an article on the faith agenda behind these initiatives, see the Fort Wayne Journal/Gazette’s coverage of Workshop to promote healthy marriage]Certainly, the statistics point to a connection between growing up in a single parent household and a variety of concerns around the well-being of the children, but the numbers do not make clear whether the experience of living with just one parent causes any problems. This is an important distinction that politicians and policy makers sometimes overlook in their attachment to notions about the value of the family. It is possible that single parents have a variety of concerns (for example, substance abuse or emotional problems) that make sustaining a marriage, staying employed, and raising healthy, well-behaved children a challenge. In these conditions, children’s living arrangements are just a symptom of bigger issues. And changing those arrangements will do little to help a child.To determine whether living with one parent is truly a problem for children, E. Michael Foster of the University of North Carolina and Ariel Kalil of the University of Chicago analyzed data (collected for an earlier study) on the changing circumstances over the course of four years of approximately 2,000 low-income families with preschool age children . Each year of the study, around 40 percent of the children were living only with their mothers. Because many of the children experienced changes in their living arrangements in the course of the study, Foster and Kalil were able to assess whether such changes by themselves made any difference to their well-being.They found little to indicate that children’s emotional well-being or their verbal skills were being affected. Other factors – such as depression among mothers and their expectations for their children – seemed to have a greater impact. The evidence suggests only that some kids do well under such conditions, and some don’t. Foster and Kalil argue that policymakers would do better to redirect their energies from marriage counseling to trying to establish why some children do well in single parent households. The answer could lead to programs which significantly improve children’s lives.• Summary of: “Living Arrangements and Children’s Development in Low-Income White, Black, and Latino Families” by: Michael E. Foster, and Ariel Kalil in Child Development, Nov2007, Vol. 78 Issue 6, pp1657-1674.

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