Study Blows Up a Major Myth About Solving Inner-City Poverty: Divorce Is More Traumatic for Affluent Children

A new Georgetown University study shows that children from high-income homes face more behavioral challenges after divorce than children from low-income households.


The study, published in Child Development and led by Georgetown professor Rebecca Ryan, examined how changes in family structure correlate with behavioral problems in children between the ages of 3 and 12. Using research from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, researchers analyzed data of nearly 4,000 children.

The data demonstrates that fathers from high-income homes typically contribute the lion's share of financial resources to the household. In a marital separation, that leaves fewer resources for the children, which can negatively impact their behavior. However, these same children, especially those older than 6 years old, can benefit from their parent guardian finding a new live-in partner.  A step-parent who moves into the home after a divorce can positively affect the child's behavior, especially if he or she brings in economic resources that absorb the initial financial strain of the divorce.

Because children from low-income homes may perceive changes in family structure as "more normative, more predictable," a separation or divorce may be less stressful for them than for high-income chidren, the study found.

"It just didn't look like moving from a two-parent biological family into a single-parent family was associated with any increases in behavioral problems for the kids from the lowest income brackets, Ryan, the lead researcher of the study, told AlterNet in an interview. "It didn't look like it was particularly disruptive to them, socially or emotionally. We also found that their house incomes didn't drop as much from the separation, which may be part of the reason why. The main thing that we found that, for those kids, it was really the quality of the home environent itself that seemed to matter the most to their social and emotional well-being."

This is not to suggest that low-income children don't benefit from having a father in the home. It does challenge the long-held belief that poor black children experience behavioral challenges because a biological father is absent. More specifically, a focus on economics and family structure can debunk assertions of race-based pathologies associated with minority children reared in single-parent homes, says A. Breland-Noble, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University.

"Often what people try to argue is that African Americans and Latino youth, boys in particular, are the ones with the greatest propensity for acting out," Breland-Noble told AlterNet in an interview. "And people have tried to tie this to everything from genetics to environment to poor parenting. I think what my colleague has demonstrated is that there are many factors that we need to consider."

"Any kid can misbehave," she added. 

Ryan says the results of her study can influence how policy makers create programs aimed at low-income children growing up in single parent homes.

"It may be that we will get more bang for our buck if we support programs that work to enhance the quality of the home environment for low-income kids, no matter what structure of family they live in and support programs that help fathers remain engaged in their kids' lives, both financially and emotionally, regardless of his residency status," she said.

During the Bush era, and even during President Barack Obama's presidency, hundreds of millions of federal dollars have been spent on initiatives to promote marriage in poor communities. However, a study by the Department of Health and Human Services reports such initiatives have few positive affects on low income couples' quality of life. 

The "It takes a village to raise a child" adage may seem cliche to some. But that "village" structure may be a far better financial investment for the federal government than conservative marriage programs that don't necessarily lead to better relationships and, thus, emotionally healthier children.

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