Third Way or Dead End? Autor-Wasserman's Hypothesis that Single Mothers Contribute to the College Gender Gap

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Monday, 25 March 2013 15:15

In a report for Third Way, David Autor and Melanie Wasserman hypothesize that the decline in the share of children living with both their biological mother and biological father “may magnify the emerging gender gap in educational attainment …”.           

Although male and female children within a given household are theoretically exposed to the same environment—including schools, neighborhoods, and adult guardians—the increasing prevalence of female-headed households implies that the majority of girls continue to cohabit with their same-sex role model. By contrast, male children raised in female-headed households are less likely to have a positive male adult household member that serves an analogous role.

They go on to “tentatively conclude that that boys perform less well academically than girls when fathers are not present in the home…”

 In Coming Apart: The State of White America, Charles Murray provides a more extreme, but not necessarily dissimilar, version of this line of argument when he writes:

I am predicting … over the next few decades … a scientific consensus that goes something like this: There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to the norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and to hold jobs. The same reasons explain why child abuse is, and always will be, concentrated among family structures in which the live-in male is not the married biological father. The same reasons explain why society’s attempts to compensate for the lack of married biological fathers don’t work and will never work. [emphasis is mine].

In short, both Murray and Autor-Wasserman are hypothesizing that boys suffer disproportionately compared to girls when they live in family structures that do not include their biological fathers. This is an argument that opponents of marriage equality will welcome, since it implies that boys raised by lesbian couples should suffer disproportionately compared to girls. In a footnote, Autor and Wasserman explain they are “focused on heterosexual household relationships since available studies do not offer detailed information on children in same-sex marriages.” However, given their emphasis on the importance of both the biological link and parental gender to boys, they offer no reason to think otherwise.

How strong is the evidence for the Autor-Wasserman (and Murray) hypothesis? I hope to dig into it more in a future post, but a few quick things. They cite two papers on educational attainment. The first, Buchmann and DiPrete (2006), attributes the greater gap not just to single-parent families, but also to boys growing up in households with fathers who do not have education beyond high school. Buchmann and DiPrete note, for example, that “males, especially black males, gain a differential advantage when they have a father in the home with some college education, and that they lose this advantage when their father has only a high school education or is absent” and "white female advantage in college completion is largely attributable to a declining rate of college completion among boys whose fathers were high-school educated or absent." So, the story in Buchmann and DiPrete seems to be as much about paternal education in married couples as it is about paternal absence. And if we were to take into account the education and wage prospects of those absent fathers, it may be mostly about paternal education/wages. 

As for Jacobs (2002), Autor and Wasserman appear to be relying on results from Jacob’s initial linear probability model showing that men who grew up in single parent households are 2.8 percent less likely to attend college, while for women who grew up in single-parent households, there is no effect.  However, the same model shows that growing up in a non-urban area has roughly the same negative effect on boys as growing up in a single-parent household, something I'd love to hear Third Way's and Autor-Wassersman's take on the policy implications of. Moreover, as my colleague John Schmitt has pointed out to me, the single-family effect on boys’ college attendance is not statistically significant at standard levels.

In their preface to the Autor-Wasserman report, Elaine Kamarck and Jonathan Cowan claim that “for a greater number of policymakers, the push to legalize marriage for some same-sex couples is further buttressed by evidence that children—particularly boys—fare worse when only one parent is in the home.” I’m not aware of any policymakers making such a boy-specific argument for same-sex marriage, but even if there are, it doesn’t seem like a very promising one. The more sensible arguments for marriage equality have to do with, well, equality.

My own view—and I say this as a devoted father of a five-year-old boy and someone who would very much like to see a much more egalitarian distribution of the care and development of children—is that the particular road Autor, Wasserman, and Third Way seem determined to head down is a dead end, not a “third way."

Tags: education | inequality