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Effect of Family Disruption on Family Finances and Children

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Critically discuss the evidence underlying the claim that the deterioration of economic conditions that usually results from family disruption is the major explanation for the lower ability and achievement of children in disrupted families.

This paper considers whether, and to what extent, the deteriorated economic situations caused through family disruptions and economic deprivations are the main reasons for children’s lower competences and attainments. Firstly, the association between disrupted family and economic circumstances are considered in line with some recent economic theory.

Secondly, the reasons why economic circumstances arising from family disruptions are identified as being the foremost predictors for lower ability and attainment of children in disrupted families. This claim is examined. In addition, issues within previous studies are then investigated. Lastly, the implications for enhancing children’s outcomes regarding this issue are also discussed.

How family disruptions are linked to deteriorated economic conditions

Due to a dramatic change of family structure in modern societies, questions about the impact of family disruptions (e.g. separation/divorce, step-parenting, remarriage) on economic conditions, measured by home ownership, income and size of the residence, have appeared to be increasingly significant. There have been a number of studies explaining the relationship between disruptions in family life and economic circumstances. Numerous longitudinal and cross sectional research reveals that disruptive events in families cause economic disadvantage (e.g. Amato, 2000; Duncan, Yeung, Brooks-Gunn and Smith, 1998).

Divorced individuals typically have greater economic deprivation than married individuals (Marks, 1996; Ross, 1995). Researchers have reported that women are likely to have more serious problems with economic consequences in comparison with men (e.g. Holden and Smock, 1991; Ross, 1995; Smock 1994) and that lone mothers are considered to be in the poorest situations after separation or divorce (Ram and Hou, 2003). For example, the longitudinal study of Bianchi, Subaiya and Kahn (1999); focusing on the gender gap in economic well-being among the couples with children after family disruptions in the United States, found that there was a 36% decline in living standard of custodial mothers, whilst noncustodial fathers experienced a 28% increase.

It can be seen that in general, mothers’ post-divorced standards of living was merely a half that of the fathers. Moreover, to compare with divorced men or married women, lone mothers tend to have more monetary problems over longer period. Amato (2000) explains this incidence that “women, compared with men, have more interrupted work histories prior to divorce, experience greater work–family conflict (due to their responsibility for children), and are more likely to experience employment and wage discrimination” (p.1277). However, the deleterious economic conditions can be relieved in step-parent families (Amato, 2000)

Why is economic deprivation from family disruptions claimed to be the major predictors for low outcomes of children?

Over the last few decades, researchers have focused attention on the economic consequences of changes in family structure, identifying family disruptions as key causal explanations for lower children’s outcomes. It has been found that the deterioration of economic conditions, caused by disruptive events in the family such as single-parenting and divorce are greatly related to negative outcomes among children (Pearson and Thoennes, 1990; Bronstein, Stoll, Clauson, Abrams and Briones, 1994; McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994; Duncan, Brooks-Gunn, Yeung and Smith, 1998; Gue, 1998; Amato, 2000; Ram and Hou, 2003).

Household income is often considered to be significant in explaining children’s outcomes (Mulkey, Crain, Harrington, 1992). Congruent with the explanation of Haveman and Wolfe (1995)

The income level of the family in which a child grows up is perhaps the best measure of the level of economic resources devoted to the child by the parents, and is often included in the studies of children’s educational attainment (p. 1855).

It is well known that different types of family have different effects on children’s ability and outcomes due to their differing economic situations (Schneider et al., 2005). Intact families usually have more income than single-parent families, and this advantage becomes a part of developing children’s educational outcomes (McLeod and Shanahan, 1993; Duncan et al., 1998; Schneider, Atteberry, Owens, 2005).

On the other hand, children from single parent-households have more limitations in economic resources in comparison with children from intact families. Single parents, particularly lone mothers often spend more time outside of the home to compensate for the economic loss due to separation or divorce. This is likely to affect children’s ability and academic outcomes because of reducing time for involvement with their children. Parents who have lower incomes due to a separation or divorce are less able to provide their children with material resources such as school equipment, computers and extra lessons (Ross, 2005)

Negative impacts on academic achievement of children related to living in separated families, often results from reduced provision of economic resources. Boggges (1998) has suggested that there are few effects on children’s academic performance when the economic status is controlled in research, achievement were found. However, persistent negative effects on graduation rates were found. In addition, Schneider et al. (2005) argues that although step-parenting families (non-traditional families) are often more advantaged in economic resources, the outcomes of the children remain lower than the outcomes of children from traditional families.

This is because step parents may not provide step children with the resources like they might towards their biological children (Schneider et al., 2005). Ram and Hou (2003) similarly propose that “children in step families are no different from those raised in lone-parent families in a number of spheres, including cognitive skills, hyperactivity, and indirect aggression, even after economic condition and familial resource variables when held constant” (p. 326). This is commonly compatible with the studies of some researchers who found children from step families less well performing in school and exhibiting more emotional and behavioural difficulties (Coleman, Ganong, and Fine, 2000; Hanson, McLanahan, and Thomson, 1997; McLanahan and Sanderfur, 1994; McMunn, Nazroo., Marmot, Boreham and Goodman, 2001)

In addition, children who live with other types of two-parent households, such as with grandparents or relatives, are also likely to have more disadvantages than children living in intact households, and the same or lower level than children in lone-parent households (Chase-Lansdale, Brooks-Gunn and Zamsky, 1994).

According to Downey (1994), although children in lone-mother families often lack economic resources, some children in lone-father families have problems with a deficiency of interpersonal resources such as involvement in children’s tasks. He also suggests that children’s outcomes in both types of family are roughly equal (Downey, 1994). Moreover, it was found that children who live with the same gender or opposite gender parents slightly differ in outcomes.

While economic situations have often been considered as the most significant factors in explaining children’s outcomes of the disruptive families, the study of Kerr and Beaujot (2001) investigating Canadian children found that there are low income is less important than other factors such as the function of family, number of children in households, educational level and age of the parents.

Similarly, Mulkey et al (1992) argue that economic conditions are not a significant mediator between lone-parent families and the low attainment of children. They also state that living in lone-mother households is not more detrimental than living in lone-father families, and income is not the major issue explaining the relationship between family structure and children’s academic performance.

Problems with the studies

The findings of some studies have been ambiguous when indicating the association between family structure changes and children’s outcomes. For example, do deteriorated economic conditions in disruptive families often affect the child’s educational outcomes? Or do children with lower ability or lower attainments usually come from families with monetary problems? In addition, the prior problems before parental divorce or separation are often neglected. According to longitudinal research by Ram and Hou (2003) children of several disruptive families were already registering academic difficulties.

Second, there is little specific mention regarding the time within the lifecycle of the child of the deteriorated economic situations. Duncan et al. (1998) suggest that the economic situations amongst children in the early years have the most influential impact on attainment, especially among children in low-income families (Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale and McRae, 1998; Duncan et al., 1998; Amato and Sobolewski, 2001). This should be different from the findings derived from adolescents. Therefore, a clearer specification of period when economic deprivation takes place should be inserted.

Third, the comparisons of income across different types of households are ambiguous. There is an unclear distinction between the income before disruptions and the income after disruptions. For example, some families may have financial problems before disruptions. Furthermore, the stability of income also should be considered because earning cycles in each family differ, and may vary across the year.

Lastly, it can be seen that ethical considerations are not adequately addressed in a number of studies even though the research touches upon highly sensitive areas of family life and predictions of children’s achievement. Such matters are usually quite confidential and the complicated relationship that might negatively affect the subjects, so the reader needs to know how the data for the research was gathered and in what conditions. For example, the protection and welfare of the participants, the use of deception, confidentiality and the anonymity of data are issues that should have been addressed and considered more fully in order that subsequent research operates within accepted ethical boundaries.


Public policy

Public policy should be more focused on the welfare of single-parent families, particularly lone-mothers. As several studies have reported, single-mothers or custodial mothers are more likely to have more financial problems than any other types of family (e.g. Holden and Smock, 1991; Ross, 1995; Smock 1994). After disruptions, they have to spend more time outside of the home in order to earn money to compensate for the loss of family income. This association in single-parent families seems to be unrelieved until re-marriage happens. In addition, if income can be considered as a significant factor in predicting childrens’ later achievement, it also acts as the resource to provide the means for their progression. One implication of these findings is the need for critical considerations about higher pay for women and income support programmes, in particular, for single mothers who have to bring up their children on their own to assist them cope with problems derived from economic deprivation after disruptions. Also, more extensive child care and support should be provided in order to meet the needs of these children.


Teachers should be more deliberately concerned with their reactions and behaviour to children from lower income families. Some teachers tend to react to such children differently due to their economic backgrounds (Mulkey et al., 1992). In addition, the understanding of misbehaviour of the student is important. Some inappropriate behaviours of students in classrooms may occur due to depression or bereavement from disruptive events in their family. Therefore, whenever the behavioural problems of students appear, instead of focusing on them only, teachers should consider the contexts of students such as family backgrounds in order to prevent misunderstanding as well as find the way to assist and support children. Furthermore, teachers in schools should have more concern and care about their own behaviours as a role model for all students because the students, especially the children in their early years tend to observe and replicate teachers’ behaviours.


Parents are the individuals who are likely to be the most influential role models for children’s lives. A careful family plan may be one strategy to ensure stability for the child. The home environment should also be considered because it is a significant source of learning. “The quality of the home environment – its opportunities for learning, the warmth of mother-child interactions, and the physical condition of the home – accounts for a substantial portion of the powerful effects of family income on cognitive outcomes” (Duncan et al., 1998, p.209). Furthermore, having a stable level of income is important because low and unstable income leads to economic pressures that may cause conflict between partners experiencing serious financial issues (Conger et al., 1993). The income level of the family is a powerful predictor of the economic pressure that has both direct and indirect impacts on children’s achievement (Duncan et al, 1998). Conflicting or disruptive events in the families can also be traumatising events for children. Parents should avoid using force and presenting unpleasant behaviours at home and in front of the children, because it may be the cause of later aggressive behaviours from children.


It appears in several studies that economic conditions are the significant explanations for the association between family structure and children’s achievement. The diminution of material resources due to deteriorated economic conditions, which often derive from disruptive events in families, has significant impacts on educational outcomes of children (Ram and Hou, 2003). In several studies, when income is restricted, children in disrupted families tend to have lower attainments than children in intact or non-divorced families.

Research reports that the majority of children in intact families are at an academic and social advantage in comparison with children in non-intact families. A child’s achievement generally depends on the economic resources that are given by parents, children who live in an intact family tend to have high attainments. This is because lone-parents have less income and have less time to be involved in household activities such as helping children to do their homework. This leads to the lower outcomes of children. Children who grow up in lone-mother families tend to have the lowest attainments in comparison with growing in other types of families. In addition, although children who live with step families have opportunities to have more economic resources than those who live with single-parent families, the researchers state that there is no difference between the educational outcomes of children in lone families and the child outcomes in step-parenting families (Coleman et al, 2001; Henson et al, 1997; Ram and Hou, 2003).

It might therefore be concluded that the deterioration of economic circumstances after separation or divorce may explain part, but by no means all, of the lower outcomes among children who have experienced parental disruptions.

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