The Long Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment. 3. The Relationship of Adolescent Family Structure to Adult Outcomes


In the previous section we found that engaging in adolescent risky behaviors generally is associated with diminished adult outcomes; the earlier the initiation, the worse the outcome. In this section we examine the role played by adolescent family structure in the relationship to the adult outcomes. As noted in Chapter II, much of the research on family structure has focused on the association between family structure and adolescent risky behaviors where participating in the behavior is the outcome. Few other outcomes have been studied. Those that have been tend to be adolescent outcomes such as high school graduation. Very little has been examined with regard to long-term adult outcomes. We estimate the relationship of adolescent family structure to long-term adult outcomes, holding constant the adolescent's engagement in risky behaviors.

Family structure may have impacts on children that follow them well into adulthood and perhaps their entire lives. The reduced economic circumstances following a divorce can reduce the resources available to invest in the child's future. Acrimony between divorced parents, the divorce itself, changes in living arrangements, or the death of a parent may contribute to psychological problems for the children. Re-marriages may improve economic conditions, but create additional stress on family relationships.

Living in an intact family (two biological parents) is almost universally associated with having a better chance at economic success, and our results are no exception. In general, we find that living in an intact family at age 14 is associated with better outcomes in the economic domain. This is consistently true across all six economic measures. For example, Figure 6 shows the relative likelihood of being in poverty between ages 25-29 for each family type. Those living with both biological parents at age 14 have the lowest probability of being in poverty between ages 25-29. The odds ratios for other family types range between 1.12 for those living with their father and a stepmother to 2.73 for those living in single father families. Individuals living with a single mother at age 14 are 32 percent more likely to spend time in poverty between ages 25-29 than individuals in intact families.

Figure 6

Two biological parent households also see their children with the lowest probability of spending time in jail. There is not much of a clear pattern for either the health or family formation measures. Intact families are neither the best nor worst at preventing poor outcomes in these domains. However, they are generally neutral, not having strong effects either way. For example, they have neither the highest nor lowest rates of marriage, divorce, or childbearing.

Single mother households, the second most common type of family structure, fare worse on the economic outcomes. Compared with intact families, those who lived only with their mother at age 14 do not do as well in the labor market and are more likely to spend time in poverty and on welfare. This is not surprising given that single mother households typically have lower income than intact families. Therefore the likelihood of not achieving economic success as an adult is probably more a function of fewer resources than it is a function of single motherhood per se. This general pattern of the negative relationship between single-mother families and successful economic outcomes is consistent with past research (Amato, 1999; McLanahan, 1999). Even when holding school dropout constant, McLanahan (1999) found higher labor market detachment rates among men from single-parent homes as compared to those from intact homes.

As with intact families, there is not much of a pattern in adult family formation for adolescents living in single mother families. However, those who lived with a single mother (or single father) at age 14 are less likely to have married by age 33 when compared with those who lived in either intact or re-married households. Adolescents in single mother households at age 14 are no more likely than adolescents in intact families to spend time in jail or use drugs as an adult. Interestingly, they are only 71 percent as likely to have an alcohol problem as an adult. These results imply that single mothers may lack the income of intact families, but are still capable of raising children who do not end up as alcoholics, drug users, or in jail.

Because of small cell sizes, we do not emphasize the results for other family types. However, certain findings are worth noting. Adolescents with the least likelihood of having an alcohol or drug problem as an adult are those who live with their father and stepmother at age 14 (42 percent as likely as those in intact families). They are also the most likely to be married, the most likely to be married with children, and the least likely to have divorced at age 33. Paradoxically, they are also the most likely to spend time in jail, spend the most years on welfare, and take the longest to find a steady job.

Those living in a single father household at age 14 are less likely than those in intact families to have adult alcohol or drug problems. They are the least likely to marry and the most likely to not be married but have a child at age 33. They have the highest likelihood of being in poverty, spend the most years in poverty, are the most likely to spend time on welfare, and take the longest to find a steady job. They also have a higher likelihood of spending time in jail than those in intact or single mother households.

In summary, like most literature we find that growing up in an intact family leads to the best outcomes overall, particularly in the economic domain. Growing up in a single mother household makes children more vulnerable to poor economic outcomes, but does not increase the likelihood of other bad outcomes. Those who grow up in either single mother or single father households have the least likelihood of marrying by age 33. In general, it appears that fathers are important for children avoiding adult alcohol and drug problems. But outside intact families, living with a biological father is associated with worse economic, family formation, and incarceration outcomes. One should be cautious about drawing conclusions from these associations. Children are not distributed across different family types randomly. In particular, adolescent behavior may influence reasons for living with a father but not a mother, rather than the other way around. The summary below provides a more detailed description of the findings in this section.

Section Summary

  • Adolescents living in intact families at age 14 have the best adult economic outcomes and are the least likely to spend time in jail. However, intact families are generally neutral in the adult health and family formation outcomes as the adolescents from these families have neither the best or worst outcomes in these domains.
  • Adolescents living in single mother families at age 14 have worse adult economic outcomes than those in intact families, but show no difference in adult drug usage or likelihood of spending time in jail. Adolescents from single mother families have lower likelihood of an adult alcohol disorder than adolescents from intact families.
  • Adolescents living with a single mother or single father at age 14 are less likely to have married by age 33 compared with those who lived in either intact or re-married households.
  • The presence of a biological father in the household at age 14 is associated with lower levels of adult alcohol disorders or drug usage.