Poverty, single-parent households, and youth at-risk behavior: an empirical study.

Author:Garis, Dalton

This is a study of the relationship between supportive family attributes for an eighth grade cohort and their twelfth grade involvement in drug and/or alcohol use, and sexual activity, or, as it is called, "at-risk" behavior. The rise in the number of children living in official poverty and the increase in the number of children living in families headed by a single parent have led some to assume that this situation has caused an increase in at-risk behavior by youth; this paper tests that assumption. First cited are studies from the literature that point to a significant decline in the number of two-parent families over the past few decades, an increase in the number of children living in official poverty, and the simultaneous rise in drug and/or alcohol use and youth sexual activity. Following the background sections is a discussion of the hypotheses to be tested; study results, analysis and discussion follow.

There is a position held by policymakers and others that a vicious cycle exists between at-risk behavior and poverty, that youth at-risk behavior begets poverty, and poverty begets at-risk behavior. At the center of all this is the question of family structure and how it is both a cause and an effect of changes in youth at-risk behavior and poverty. There is little doubt that youth sexual activity and youth drug and alcohol abuse have the power to stunt human development to the detriment of economic outcomes. How many of the changes in youth at-risk behavior are due to poverty and how much due to changes in family structure?


It is impressive how many of the recent studies of adolescence and youth, only a few of which are cited here, include the word "crisis" or "risk" in their titles [Lerner 1995; Dryfoos 1990]. Interest in the topic of how structural changes in the family have negatively affected the lives of children is widespread. Studies of the effects on children and youth being raised by a single parent, or the offspring of divorced parents, include those of Judith Wallerstein [1989] and Mavis Hetherington and Josephine Arasteh [1988]; similar studies exist for youth drug and alcohol use (National Survey Results on Drug Use).

The Rise in Single-Parent Families

The number of children living with a single parent has increased dramatically since the 1960s.

In the 1985-89 period, there were about 2.2 million premarital births compared to about 700,000 premarital births for the 1960-64 period.... Between 1970 and 1990, the proportion of two-parent family groups has declined for Whites, Blacks and persons of Hispanic origin (who may be of any race) while father-child and mother-child family groups have increased [Lugaila 1992, 11]. Mother-child family groups have increased most dramatically due to the rise in divorce and births outside of marriage [Lugaila 1992, 20].

Arthur Norton and Louisa Miller [1992, 9,12] state that

Premarital childbearing, separation and divorce have caused one-parent family groups to become much more prevalent (and accepted) in the United States in the last 20 years. Now, about 3 out of 10 family groups are maintained by just one parent, but in 1970 only 1 out of 10 were.... These societal changes have led to American children today living in increasingly varied and complex living arrangements.

Just experiencing the divorce of their parents can itself have profound negative effects on children and youth. A longitudinal study by Wallerstein [1989] on the aftermath of divorce, which follows subjects for 15 years, sheds light on the problems of family logistics, i.e., the ease with which children can access both their parents. Divorce challenges parents who want to continue to raise their children with the participation of both parents because the divorce does not necessarily mean an end to the disputes that caused the divorce in the first place [1989, xviii]. The study concentrates on the effects of divorce on children, showing that these effects in terms of their long term consequences have been too little regarded by social scientists in the past [1989, xi].

For those single parent households resulting from out-of-wedlock births to teen mothers, the Kids Count Data Book [1994, 12-13] states:

. . . children born to single teen mothers "are more likely to drop out of school, to give birth out of wedlock, to divorce or separate, and to be dependent on welfare" . . . Families where there is only one adult worker are likely to have low incomes. In addition to being young and unmarried, the mothers of these babies are often uneducated. Given the changing nature of our society, parents with low educational attainment are likely to have increasing difficulty in today's labor force. These parents will have to struggle especially hard to provide the economic and human resources that lead to successful child development.

The Increase of Children in Poverty

An increase in child poverty is a cause for concern among social scientists. Terry Lugaila [1992, 48] states that young children are the most likely population cohort to be living in poverty. "Twenty-five percent of children under age 3 lived in poverty, and 22.1 percent aged 3 to 5 years lived in poverty, compared to 17.3 percent for adolescents age 12 to 17." According to Martha Ozawa [1993, 518],

In 1990, 20.6% of all children in the United States were poor, compared with 15.1% in 1970. Children were the poorest demographic group in 1990. In contrast, only 12.2% of the elderly were poor in 1990. These figures indicate a great transformation in child poverty - until 1973, the poverty rate of children was always lower than that of the elderly.

A significant difficulty with single parent families is the increased likelihood that they will be poor. According to its Summary and Findings, the Kids Count Data Book [1994, 16] states that

Children growing up in single parent-households typically do not have the same economic, housing, or human resources available as those growing up in two-parent families. For example, the most recent national figures from the Census Bureau indicate that among families with children, the poverty rate for single-parent families is 42 percent, compared to 8 percent for two-parent families.

In addition, the report states that public assistance programs are not capable of eliminating this poverty; few single mothers receive any child support while almost none receive full child support [Kids Count... 1994, 16].

Elizabeth Segal [1991, 455, Table 3] cited data showing that child poverty decreased during the 1970s, falling to 17.1 percent in 1975 from a high of 26.9 percent in 1960, only to increase again to 19.6 percent in 1989.

Children of young parents and those living in female-headed households are at greater risk of living in poverty, but the poverty rate of any household with children is three times greater than for households without children [Segal 1991, 456; emphasis added].

At the same time, the percentage of families with children receiving social program transfer payment assistance, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), decreased in the 1980s. In 1987, only 56 percent of poor families were enrolled in AFDC, and for 1980-1987 the mean was 56 percent as compared to 73.6 percent for the 1970s. In addition,

In spite of the importance of AFDC for millions of families, the program does not provide adequate resources for a family in poverty. From 1977 to 1986, AFDC payments did not keep up with inflation.... From 1970 to 1988, the median state monthly benefit after inflation dropped 36 percent [Segal 1991, 456].

Increases in At-Risk Behavior by Youth

It might be expected that there would be many papers and journal articles on youth at-risk activity and its economic consequences, at least relating to youth drag use and sexual activity. While there were some excellent articles, their overall dearth in numbers was noteworthy. Many volumes of major economic journals failed to reveal a single article on this important topic. A few studies, with some background, are recounted below.

Youth drug use. According to the Uniform Crime Reports for the United States [1994], arrests for drug-related charges between 1985 and 1994 rose 66 percent for persons under 18 years of age compared to an increase of 60 percent for those older than 18 years. However, between 1990 and 1994, drug arrests for persons under 18 years of age increased 88.9 percent compared to 14.2 percent for those over 18 years. To put these statistics in context, there has been a general decrease in reported illicit drug use by high school twelfth graders since a high of almost 60 percent in 1979. By 1992, drug use for high school seniors had dropped to about 25 percent. But this reduction ceased that year and drug use began to rise once again.

Robert Johnson et al. [1996] used data obtained from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse to study how family structure affected the degree to which youth would become involved with drug use, including alcohol and cigarettes. The study controlled for differences in age, race/ethnicity, gender, and family income. After establishing that single-parent families are a significant percentage of all households (15.6 percent of total) and that this has changed the typical family experience for many adolescents, the study concludes that adolescents living with both biological parents are significantly less likely to use illicit drugs, including alcohol and cigarettes. They report that family structures of father only, father/stepmother, mother only, mother/stepfather, and "families with no biological parent present" have higher adolescent drug use figures, particularly with mother only and mother/stepfather structures. The authors emphasize that, while mother only households are often cited as being poorer than other households, this was controlled for in the study. They conclude that the number of biological parents present is "one of the more important determinants of...

To continue reading