New York Times

February 21, 2002

2 Parents Not Always Best for Children, Study Finds

By ROBIN TONER
New York Times

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 Two- partner households may not necessarily be better for poor children than single-parent households, researchers from Johns Hopkins have found.

The finding sounded a cautionary note today in the debate over what the government should do in the next welfare law to promote marriage.

In a study of 2,100 poor families in three cities, the Hopkins researchers examine a trend that has been widely considered to be good news: a small but noticeable increase in recent years in the percentage of low-income children growing up in two- parent households.

The researchers found that in poor neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio this was indeed the case. The percentage of children living with a single mother declined from 57 percent in the first interview to 54 percent in follow-up studies 16 months later.

But about two-thirds of these new two-adult households were people living together, not married. The researchers wrote, "Virtually all of the cohabitating and marriage" that began during the 16 months of the studies involved a mother and a man who was not the child's biological father. "The percentage of children living with both biological parents did not increase." Only a fifth of the children in the study lived with married, biological parents.

Moreover, both the marriages and the live-in relationships proved fragile. Of the couples who were living together at the start of the study, 42 percent had broken up 16 months later, while 16 percent had married. Of the mothers who were married at the start, 18 percent had separated 16 months later.

Such "churning" can have serious consequences for children, said Andrew J. Cherlin, an author of the study. The sheer number of transitions children undergo in their living arrangements can cause serious problems, Mr. Cherlin added.

"We conclude, if our study is at all representative, that poor children in central cities will probably not benefit as much from the trend toward two-parent families as we might think," said Mr. Cherlin, who is the Griswold professor of public policy at Hopkins.

"There is a place for some promotion of two-parent families in welfare reform," he added, "but I think we ought to hold the line and not allow it to overwhelm the rest of the bill."

Mr. Cherlin suggested that government marriage programs might want to focus on biological parents who have recently had a child.

The Hopkins study was financed by several foundations and federal agencies. It was presented today at a welfare forum in Washington.

The Bush administration has already proposed $100 million a year to finance experimental programs in the states to encourage marriage among low-income people.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company