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December 13, 2019 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Sigh.  What to make of this New York Times op-ed (New York Times, 12/9/19)?  Is it really as confusing and wrong-headed as it seems?  You decide.

First, the headline (and sub-headline) not only don’t accurately describe the article and they don’t get close to describing the underlying study on which the article is based.  Here they are:

The Myth of the Two-Parent Home

New research indicates that access to resources, more than family structure, matters for black kids’ success.

But of course the article says nothing about the two-parent home being a “myth.”  On the contrary, author Dr. Christina Cross is at pains to say this:

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that the two-parent family is bad for children of any race or ethnicity. Indeed, scholars have noted its wide array of benefits for children, parents and communities, especially those from middle-class backgrounds.

So, far from being a “myth,” Cross acknowledges the “wide array of benefits” for everyone that arises from two-parent households.

As to what “matters for black kids’ success,” Cross didn’t analyze that.  “Success,” after all is an astonishingly broad term and not something we’d expect to be examined by a single study.  No, what Cross looked at was first, kids’ likelihood of graduating from high school on time and, second, their likelihood of enrolling in college.  Those two specific considerations were all she studied.

In short, the article’s headline has little to do with the article.

If that’s not strange enough, what’s more so is the comparison between the article and the study on which it’s based.

The salient point Cross makes in the article is twofold.  First, she says, being raised by a single mother is less of a bad situation for black children than for white ones.  Second, what matters most for children in single-parent households are “socioeconomic factors” which, strangely, she nowhere defines.

She also takes a look at whether access to extended family members accounts for black kids’ being less adversely affected by single parenthood than are white kids.  It seems that black children are more likely to live with or near a member of their extended family than are white children, so perhaps that explains the difference in their response to being brought up by a single mother.

And that’s where it gets weird.  Here’s what she says in the article about access to extended family members:

[B]eing embedded in extended family explained roughly 15 percent to 20 percent (of the differences between white and black kids raised by single mothers).  

But here’s what she said in her study:

This suggests that indicators of extended family embeddedness explained little of the main interaction effects of family structure on high school graduation between blacks and whites.

Now, if Cross believes that a 20% effect “explained little,” she’s the only social scientist I’ve ever read who does.

Meanwhile, what exactly is the difference between “family structure” and “socioeconomic factors?”  After all, two-parent families tend strongly to have more financial resources than do single-parent families.  Indeed, over one-third households headed by a single mother exist in poverty.  That’s well over twice the national poverty rate for all households.  The only way to separate access to financial resources from family structure would have been to divide up single-parent households according to wealth and/or income and compare whites and blacks within each category.  But if Cross did that, she doesn’t let on about it in either her article or her study.

A further aspect of “socioeconomic factors” could be what McLanahan and Sandefur refer to as “human capital,” i.e. the parents and extended family, plus everyone they know who could play a significant role in a child’s life.  As with financial resources, a child with two parents has access to more human capital than does his/her peer in a single-parent home.  So again, what’s the difference between family structure and socioeconomic factors?  To me, the latter looks like a proxy for the former.

But it gets weirder still.  It’s no secret that, on average, whites in the U.S. are more affluent than blacks.  That’s true of white and black single-parent households as well.  So it’s extremely strange that, according to Cross’ claims, black kids in single-parent households do less badly than do their white counterparts.  We’d expect the opposite to be true.  And it’s downright illogical that they do so because, according to Cross, of the importance of “socioeconomic factors.”  If black kids have access to fewer resources than do white kids (and they do on average) then that would predict their performing less well than white kids.  But, according to Cross, they don’t.

Put simply, she appears to be contradicting herself.  She’s saying that lack of access to resources explains better black children’s response to single parenthood.  Apparently, as long as you’re a black child of a single mother, the poorer the better.  Make sense?

It makes about as much sense as “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home.”

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