Family structure, housing, and child health

Wendy Sigle-Rushton, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

It is well established that children who grow up with married biological parents have, on average, better outcomes than children who experience other family structures. However, it is less clear what this association means and how it should be interpreted. A good deal of debate has centred on whether the association represents something "real" or merely spurious. Although debates about the "causal" effects of family structure have raised important concerns, a preoccupation with self-selection or unobserved heterogeneity bias may have diverted attention from other equally relevant questions about how we should understand the crude relationship between family structure and child outcomes. Why is it that children who live with a single mother two cohabiting parents have poorer heath and developmental outcomes than children who live with two biological parents? Differential access to high quality and stable housing circumstances by family structure may be one important factor, especially in countries like the United States where housing costs are high and housing assistance is limited. Because family structure is strongly linked to income, married, two parent families are in a better position to be able to afford appropriate housing. Dissolution, more likely amongst unmarried parents, is likely to be linked to housing instability and moves into lower quality or public housing projects, both of which have been shown to be negatively associated with child outcomes. Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, this paper uses both standard OLS techniques and graphical chain models to identify and explore the inter-relationships between housing, family circumstances and child health. Preliminary findings suggest strong links between family structure and housing. For general health and asthma, in particular, housing tenure, but not residential mobility, appears to explain some of the association betwen family structure and child health.

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Presented in Session 108: Family structure and child well-being