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The Persistence of Poverty and Father Absence

Results from DIVERGE find that children born in poor health has a 2-fold elevated relative risk of being raised in poor families and a 60 percent elevated relative risk of growing up in poor families without a residential father. These numbers are relative to the children’s healthy peers.


The first study in DIVERGE examines disparities in poverty and residential father absence during childhood among inner-city children born to unmarried mothers, and to determine if children born in poor health, within this group of children, are more likely to experience poverty and father absence relative to their healthy peers. Children's health is indicated by low birthweight.


"The persistence of poverty and residential father absence that disadvantaged inner-city children experience is striking, even when considering this subpopulation of high-risk children in isolation and controlling for socio-demographic confounders. This persistence is even more prevalent for children born in poor health"

In this study I use longitudinal birth cohort data linked with medical birth records from the Fragile Families Child and Wellbeing Study for 2.638 inner-city children born to unmarried mothers. This study extend previous research by examining the variation in family environments with regard to poverty and residential father absence.


My results show that children in poor health, within this group of children, are not only more likely to be born into disadvantaged families; they are also more likely to remain in less resourceful family environments relative to their healthy peers throughout their childhood years.



Disparities in Poverty and Residential Father Absence

"Whereas these results are consistent with previous research addressing the prevalence of poverty and more vulnerable family structures among children born to unmarried mothers, the degree to which these children were likely to remain in poor families or without a residential father is striking."

In the total sample used in this study, 42.9% of the children were born into poor families, and my results suggest that at least 40.0% had a very high propensity to stay in poverty throughout their first 5 years of life.


Furthermore, 52.3% of the children in the total sample were born to single mothers, and 56.0% had a high propensity to be without a residential father throughout their first 5 years of life.



Family Environments of Children Born in Poor Health


"Children born in poor health are not only born into more disadvantaged family environments, they are also more likely to remain there throughout their childhood developmental years."

Even after I adjust for socio-demographic confounders related to structural inequalities in children's well-being and healthy development at the individual level, children's health remains a substantial predictor of the type of family environment that the children in this sample experience between age 1 and 5.


Being born in poor health is associated with a 60.0 percent increase in the relative risk of growing up in a poor family without a residential father. This finding is relative to growing up in a non-poor with married parents.


Children born in poor health is also more than two times more likely to grow up in a poor family with cohabiting parents. Again this finding is relative to growing up in a non-poor with married parents.


Based on these findings, this study demonstrates that there is a significant association between being born in poor health and growing up in the most economically disadvantaged and fragile family structures, even when considering this subpopulation of high-risk children in isolation and controlling for socio-demographic confounders.



Policy Implications


"There is a growing interest in how policies that support positive birth outcomes and assists disadvantaged families around the time of birth can safeguard against adverse birth and later life outcomes. The results from my analyses suggest that support policies may have an even greater impact if they had a more lasting character extending through the childhood years."

This first DIVERGE study adds by developing an evidence base which asserts the important role of continued assistance policy to promote and ensure child health. While early interventions are indeed to be appraised and promoted, these should not be viewed as a substitute for the continued support throughout childhood for children born into economically and socially disadvantaged family environments in general, and among these for children in poor health in particular.


The potential lack of adult support for single parent families and families of children in poor health must too be considered as an integral part of formulating family policy.