Rising Household Debt and Children’s Socioemotional Well-being Trajectories

Abstract

Debt is now a substantial aspect of family finances. Yet, research on how household debt is linked with child development has been limited. We use data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 cohort and hierarchical linear models to estimate associations of amounts and types of parental debt (home, education, auto, unsecured/uncollateralized) with child socioemotional well-being. We find that unsecured debt is associated with growth in child behavior problems, whereas this is not the case for other forms of debt. Moreover, the association of unsecured debt with child behavior problems varies by child age and socioeconomic status, with younger children and children from less-advantaged families experiencing larger associations of unsecured debt with greater behavior problems.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We replaced missing values for ages 5-6 debt with debt at ages 3–4 if available. Also, we estimated our models using only the (complete case) sample with no missing data. Results (available upon request) were consistent with those presented here.

  2. 2.

    The BPI consists of 10 internalizing behavior problems items for children ages 4–11, 6 internalizing behavior problems items for children aged 12 and above, 18 externalizing behavior problems items for children ages 4–5, 20 externalizing behavior problems items for children ages 6–11, and 19 externalizing behavior problems items for children aged 12 and above.

  3. 3.

    Locus of control refers to extent to which individuals believe they have control over their lives through their own behaviors versus their lives being determined by their environment. It was measured in the NLSY in 1979 using the Rotter Internal-External Locus of Control Scale.

  4. 4.

    Self-esteem refers to an individual’s level of self-approval/-disapproval. It was measured in the NLSY in 1980 using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.

  5. 5.

    Median amounts of education, home, auto, and unsecured debt were 0 at each child age.

  6. 6.

    Results for the covariates are available in Table A3 (online appendix).

  7. 7.

    We also estimated separate models by concurrent marital status (married vs. unmarried). We found few significant differences in associations of debt with behavior problems by marital status. These results are available in Table A6 (online appendix).

  8. 8.

    As an additional robustness test, we also examined whether there was heterogeneity in associations of debt with child socioemotional well-being by family homeownership status given that different types of debt may be fungible, particularly for homeowners who are able borrow on their home in lieu of taking on, or in order to pay back, higher-cost unsecured debt. We found no significant variation in associations of unsecured debt with child behavior problems by homeowner status (see Table A5, online appendix).

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful for research support from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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Berger, L.M., Houle, J.N. Rising Household Debt and Children’s Socioemotional Well-being Trajectories. Demography 56, 1273–1301 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-019-00800-7

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Keywords

  • Household debt
  • Child well-being
  • Hierarchical linear models
  • National Longitudinal Survey of Youth
  • Unsecured debt