Research is divided as to whether children living in same-sex parent families achieve different outcomes compared with their peers. In this article, we improve on earlier estimates of such differences and subsequently study whether and why the association between parental union sex composition and children’s school progress changed over time. Data from the American Community Survey waves 2008–2015 (N = 1,952,490 including 7,792 children living with a same-sex couple) indicate that children living with same-sex couples were historically more likely to be behind in school but that this association disappeared over time. Changes in socioeconomic characteristics of same-sex couples played a minor role. In 2008, it was only in areas with unfavorable laws and attitudes toward same-sex couples that children living with same-sex couples were more likely to be behind in school. This was especially the case for adopted children. In more recent periods, no effect of parental union sex composition on school progress is observed within any area or among any group studied. Based on where and when these changes took place, it is suggested that changing attitudes toward same-sex couples might have played an important role in equalizing school progress across groups.
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We study 7,792 children living with same-sex couples, whereas Watkins’ sample included 4,430. However, Watkins consistently studied four subsamples and ended up comparing at most 1,613 children living with a same-sex couple at a time.
Code (STATA) used for data management and analysis is available in section I of the online appendix.
The data were accessed through IPUMS (Ruggles et al. 2017).
In additional analysis, we also exclude children aged 16. Results are robust and available upon request. The maximum age of respondents included in Watkins (2018) was 21, likely explaining his higher estimates of being behind in school.
Gates (2013) reported that approximately 0.3 % of all children under age 18 lived with a same-sex couple at the time of the 2010 U.S. census, a number we also approach when lifting sample restrictions based on family structure (i.e., 0.31 %).
The questions asked about sex and individuals’ relationship to the household head are consistent across the 2008–2015 ACS waves.
The household roster questionnaire of the ACS is based on ticking a box for each member regarding their relationship to the household head. One of the options is “unmarried partner.” We suspect that on several occasions, household members marked as being an unmarried partner of the head of household were in fact an unmarried partner of another household member. For instance, in a 2009 household, the head of household was an 83-year-old woman living with her 53-year-old daughter and 20-year-old grandson. A 21-year-old female living in the household was marked as the unmarried partner of the 83-year-old head of household but was probably the partner of her grandson.
We therefore underestimate the amount of children being behind in school. In a normal course of events, a subgroup of children will complete Grade 1 at age 7 (depending on their birth date). If children from this particular group are retained in Grade 1 and interviewed after retention but before they turn 8, they will not be identified as being behind in school.
We also interact quarter of birth with living with a same-sex couple and do not find differences in effects across quarter of birth, which is what one would expect if same-sex couples were more or less likely to redshirt their children.
We also exclude children aged 8 born in July–September because the share red-shirted among those behind in school might be larger for this age group.
In the CPS, the relationship to each parent is asked of respondents. However, in the publicly available data, this is recoded into the relationship to the father and mother, preventing us from calculating this percentage for same-sex couples.
Equivalized through dividing household income by the square-root of the number of household members.
The GSS data were available only biannually. Regional attitudes therefore refer to either the current or the previous year. Figures E1 and E2 in the online appendix display distributions of these measures.
The GSS is designed to be nationally representative but might not necessarily be so for our area measure. Previous research has shown that calculating state-level averages based on GSS data produces relatively good indications of state-level attitudes (Brace et al. 2002). State identifiers were not included in (the publicly available) version of the GSS data. Given that census divisions aggregate states into larger categories, we are less concerned about the regional representativeness of the GSS data. However, this is less clear for our division of each region into metro/nonmetro areas. We therefore follow Brace et al.’s (2002) procedure to investigate the representativeness of the GSS to these 18 areas. We correlate the share of college-educated and black persons in each area and year based on the GSS with the corresponding numbers calculated using the ACS. Correlations are high (.63 and .83; Brace et al. reported .77 and .93 for education and race/ethnicity respectively; after using only region, we find correlations of .80 and .94), thus reducing concerns that the GSS is not representative for the areas used in this article. We nonetheless also produce results based on regional data only (see the online appendix, section E).
The corresponding marginal effect is 0.3 percentage points (see the online appendix, section C).
When we also include children aged 9, for whom grade retentions likely occurred after the current family composition took shape, odds ratios are robust: 1.00 (controlling only for age) and 0.99 (with all controls), respectively (based on 1,019 children living with a same-sex couple; not shown).
Whereas children of same-sex couples had more siblings and less-educated parents than their peers in different-sex couple families in 2008, they had fewer siblings and more-educated parents than their peers by the end of the observation period (online appendix, Table D2). Changes in income appear unlikely to have mattered, given that income was slightly lower among same-sex couples until 2013 and equalized only in 2014 because of increases in income among dual-male couples (see Figs. B4 and B5 in the online appendix).
See http://www.hrc.org/state-maps/marriage-equality. In 2010, five states issued marriage licenses (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont), and six provided equivalent civil unions to same-sex couples (California, District of Columbia, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington).
We reach the same conclusion when looking at state-level legislation protecting same-sex couples in the adoption process; see the online appendix, section G.
Figure F1 and Table A1 in the online appendix show that changes over time for adopted children are statistically significant. Section D of the online appendix also shows models controlling for socioeconomic characteristics. After we account for socioeconomic characteristics, a statistically significant effect of parental union sex composition remains for 2008 among adopted children.
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We thank Eline Alexandra van Staveren for her research assistance and Katy Morris, Léa Pessin, Jonathan Hersh, and Sander Wagner; those present at our session at the 2017 annual meeting of the Population Association of America, and in particular, discussant Daniel Schneider; as well as those who attended the CREST Sociology Lab Seminar for their insights and comments on previous versions of this article. Diederik Boertien acknowledges research funding from the Beatriu de Pinos program of the Generalitat de Catalunya (2016-BP-00121) as well as the EQUALIZE project led by Iñaki Permanyer (ERC-2014-STG-grant agreement No 637768).
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Boertien, D., Bernardi, F. Same-Sex Parents and Children’s School Progress: An Association That Disappeared Over Time. Demography 56, 477–501 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-018-0759-3
- Child outcomes
- Same-sex couples
- Social stratification