Family Structure and Parental Investments: Economic Resources, Commitment, and Inequalities in Financial Investments in Children

Working Paper*, Mar 15, 2019

Family structure in the United States is undergoing important change and continued stratification with increases in single parenting and cohabiting unions. These transformations in family demography have important implications for social mobility as theory and empirical research suggest family structure plays an important causal role in shaping children’s life chances, in part through the differential financial investments that parents make for their children’s development. Drawing from the 2003–2017 Consumer Expenditure Surveys, we examine differences by family structure in parental financial investments in children’s childcare, schooling, and enrichment activities. We compare differences between married, cohabiting, and single parents and we test two candidate pathways that might account for associations between family structure and financial investment in children: disparities in economic resources and differences in long-term commitment. Single and cohabiting parents make fewer parental investments than married parents. Income explains the entire difference for singles but less than half the gap for cohabiters, suggesting differences in commitment/preferences. Our work illustrates the heterogeneity in the extent and causes of familial inequalities in parental investments in children, which in turn has important implications for America’s opportunity structure and future increasing inequality in the preparation of America’s future labor force.

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Orestes Pat Hastings

Orestes “Pat” Hastings is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado State University. His research explores how the features of people’s social and economic contexts influence their decisions, behaviors, and attitudes. Currently he is especially interested in the mechanisms through which economic inequalities become social inequalities, applying methods of causal inference to estimate contextual effects, and understanding social change—both past and future—in the United States. Recent publications have appeared the American Sociological Review, Demography, Social Forces, Social Science Research, and Sociological Science.


Daniel Schneider

Daniel Schneider completed his B.A. in Public Policy at Brown University in 2003 and earned his PhD in Sociology and Social Policy from Princeton University in 2012. Before joining the Department of Sociology, he was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Postdoctoral Scholar in Health Policy Research at UC Berkeley. Professor Schneider’s research interests are focused on social demography, inequality, and the family. His current research includes an investigation of the role of economic resources in entry into marriage and cohabitation, a project examining the effects of the Great Recession on relationship quality, union dissolution, and fertility, and work on how precarious and unpredictable employment affects family life.

*This working paper was made possible by the US 2050 project, supported by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


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