Review of Economics of the Household

, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 345–374 | Cite as

Family structure and child outcomes: a high definition, wide angle “snapshot”

  • Karen Smith Conway
  • Minghua Li


Using data from the National Survey of America’s Families (NSAF), this research investigates the relationships between a highly defined set of family structures and a broad set of child outcomes at a particular point in time in a child’s life. A detailed classification of family structures is constructed that clarifies key differences among various types of diverse families, and facilitates equivalencies testing and pairwise comparisons across nontraditional family structures. The NSAF contains a large number of observations for less common, but growing, family structures such as single-father families, grandparent-headed households and cohabiters, which makes such detailed analyses feasible and allows further stratification by child age, gender and race. The data also contains information on child behavioral, educational and physical health outcomes, as well as extensive household characteristics, economic resources and parental behaviors and inputs. Results suggest that differences across nontraditional family structures are particularly prominent for child health outcomes and that the gender of the resident parent is empirically important, more so than the presence of a cohabiting or married step-parent. Children in single father families have lesser access to health care yet enjoy better health outcomes than those in other families, even after controlling for economic resources (and inputs). In contrast, few differences are found between grandparent-headed families and other non-parent families. While we explore alternative explanations for these results, our cross-sectional data and complex set of family structure variables preclude isolating causal relationships; instead, our analyses yield empirically important distinctions that point to promising avenues for future research.


Family structure Child health and development Gender 

JEL Classification

I1 J12 



The authors are grateful to Reagan Baughman, Robert Mohr and Robert Woodward for their helpful comments and to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, and the NSAF Small Research Grants Program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for financial support. All remaining errors are own.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsUniversity of New HampshireDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Business Administration DivisionFranklin Pierce UniversityRindgeUSA

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