Metropolitan Digital

  • Written by Orestes 'Pat' Hastings, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Colorado State University
A quarter of US parents are unmarried – and that changes how much they invest in their kids

Family structure in America is sharply divided by class and race[1].

While 84% of children whose mothers have a bachelor’s degree or higher-level education live with married parents, only 58% of children whose mothers have a high school degree or less do so. And while 75% of white children live with married parents, just 38% of black children do so.

This family inequality appears to have real consequences for children’s chances in life. Compared with children who grow up in cohabiting or single-parent families, those who grow up with stable married parents generally have better health and behavior in childhood[2], are more likely to complete high school[3] and have higher incomes as adults[4].

Why? Families with different structures parent differently – and that can perpetuate inequality across generations. Children in the U.S. are growing up in an era of “intensive parenting,”[5] with many childhoods filled with piano lessons and private tutors, traveling sports teams and summer camps. While costly, these activities become a form of investment by parents[6] that can improve their children’s grades, chances of getting into a selective university and future job opportunities.

The key finding of our study[7], presented at the American Sociological Association[8]’s annual conference in August, is that family structure plays a role in how much parents spend on their children.

Gaps in parental investments

We looked[9] at the spending patterns of more than 37,000 families with children who participated in the Consumer Expenditure Survey[10] between 2003 and 2017.

We focused on three categories of spending on children: child care, schooling and extracurricular activities.

We find married parents spent nearly twice as much – roughly US$700 more per year per child – on these investments in children than cohabiting and single parents spend. When we compare households that are similar in terms of race, education, age and family size, we find married parents still spend roughly $300 more per child.

What causes this gap? One explanation is economic. Single-parent households have much lower incomes[11] and higher rates of poverty[12] compared to married-parent households.

Once we account for these income differences, the gap between single parents and married parents goes away. In fact, if married and single parents had the same incomes, our model predicts single parents would spend slightly more on parental investments. In other words, single parents spend roughly an equivalent percent of their income of their children.

But, income accounts for less than half the difference in spending on children between married parents and unmarried parents who live together. So what else is a factor?

Although it’s more common than ever for unmarried people to live together, these cohabitations are relatively shorter and more likely to dissolve[13] than marriages.

This relationship instability may depress spending on children if parents and partners are focused on a shorter horizon[14] than other parents.

Cohabiting stepfathers also appear to be less engaged parents[15] to stepchildren than stepfathers who are married to the child’s mother, which could shape household spending decisions.

Long-term consequences

Family structure is an important part of inequality in contemporary America. A growing share of American households with children are single-parent or cohabiting-partner households[16].

There’s no simple solution to reducing these spending inequalities, but we think our findings can inform policy in a couple of ways.

Because the disadvantage in single-parent families stems from a lack of economic resources, policies like the earned income tax credit[17], which provides low-income working families with a refundable tax credit, put money directly in the pockets of single-parent families. This would likely reduce these gaps in parental investments.

However, for unmarried couples with children, the disadvantage in spending isn’t just caused by lower incomes. While one might suggest cohabiters get married, it’s not clear that the commitment to long-term investments in children would necessarily follow.

For the children of cohabiting parents – and for all children – we think that direct public investments in children through policies such as increased support for schools[18] and child health insurance[19] could reduce inequalities and increase opportunities for children growing up in different types of families.


  1. ^ sharply divided by class and race (
  2. ^ health and behavior in childhood (
  3. ^ complete high school (
  4. ^ incomes as adults (
  5. ^ era of “intensive parenting,” (
  6. ^ form of investment by parents (
  7. ^ our study (
  8. ^ American Sociological Association (
  9. ^ looked (
  10. ^ Consumer Expenditure Survey (
  11. ^ lower incomes (
  12. ^ higher rates of poverty (
  13. ^ relatively shorter and more likely to dissolve (
  14. ^ focused on a shorter horizon (
  15. ^ less engaged parents (
  16. ^ single-parent or cohabiting-partner households (
  17. ^ earned income tax credit (
  18. ^ increased support for schools (
  19. ^ health insurance (

Authors: Orestes 'Pat' Hastings, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Colorado State University

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

WENDY MOTEN I’ve Got You Covered

WENDY MOTEN may have launched her career as a pop/R&B artist and taken cool detours into jazz along the way, but her heart clearly belongs to NashvilleWendy Moten may have launched her career ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Smooth Jazz Music Legend “Dr. Dave” Releases An Homage To The Tonight Show

Writing and recording smooth jazz albums and performing live over the past 25 years, I’ve learned that people react most powerfully to a song’s rhythms. If you’ve got a great beat that they can mo...

Dr. Dave - avatar Dr. Dave

Singer/Songwriter Darrell Kelley Talks Music and Social Relevance

I feel very blessed that two of my songs, “The Coronavirus” and “Because of You,” are currently in the Top Five on the World Indie Music charts and continue to grow in influence, with over 100,0...

Darrell Kelley - avatar Darrell Kelley

How to Create a Melody on the Piano

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be able to write a song? Maybe you’ve wondered how anybody goes about writing a song? Once you understand how music works, you can use building b...

News Company - avatar News Company


In the midst of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the release of “In the Morning” on Pure Mission Entertainment – the label he partners on with Aaron Emig - follows on the heels of the global s...

Tom Estey - avatar Tom Estey

Expert Advice: Indie Record Producing and Engineering

My career as an independent artist evolved out of my career as an entrepreneur and restaurant owner. I moved to from my hometown of Boston Atlanta in 2013 and opened my soul food restaurant Soul D...

Darrell Kelley - avatar Darrell Kelley

Weight of The World

When the calm of the world is at stake, and every message of hope is crucial to our collective peace of mind and the endurance of the human spirit, it’s not only possible, but essential to present any...

Tom Estey - avatar Tom Estey

DARRELL KELLEY “The Coronavirus”

Even though I have been releasing tracks and albums since 2018, I never considered myself an artist until I started getting responses from people telling me that my songs were resonating with them. ...



During these tumultuous times, people are feeling a loss that is akin to grieving.  Grieving for their former lives and ways and it is unclear when things will return to “normal.”  Grieving for th...

Stephanie Hochman of My Luv Notes - avatar Stephanie Hochman of My Luv Notes

Metropolitan Business News

How to make overseas transfers easier?

Mainstream banks can charge as much as $20 just to process a basic international money transfer. Fortunately, today people are not doomed to handling personal finances only through mainstream gl...

News Company - avatar News Company

The flourishing international market of fragrance and perfume

There is something special and unique about the art of fragrance. This is a big world and there are quite literally a lot of smells around at any given time. In fact, as one of the five human senses i...

News Company - avatar News Company

Impact of good marketing on sales

Sales and marketing are brothers as they go hand and in hand. The job of both of these departments is to generate revenue so that an organization can make money. A company that does not generate rev...

News Company - avatar News Company

7 effective tips for increasing sales in retail

It seems that retailers have drawn a difficult lot in the 21st century: competition from online retail is growing steadily. After all, Internet retailers can sell your products at significantly lowe...

News Company - avatar News Company

10 Reasons to Use Labels

People cannot stop biting their nails, considering the messy condition of their homes. You open your kitchen drawer to grab some utensils, but instead, you take a glance at toys lying inside that dr...

News Company - avatar News Company

15 ways to encourage your office employees

We often get so busy managing our companies and business that we forget about the most important resource that is making our business reach new height every day, our employees. Support of the manage...

News Company - avatar News Company



Are you planning to go on a trip? Possibly, you do not know what things are most necessary on a trip. In this article, we will guide you through some important tips. These tips help you to...

News Company - avatar News Company

New Baggage Regulations to Help Aussie Parents Travel with Infants

Travelling around the globe has never been easy, especially when infants tag along for the trip. One of the main issues that parents often have to deal with is the need to bring extra item...

News Company - avatar News Company

Maya Beach Opens to Tourists

Despite recent reports that Southern Thailand's famous Maya Beach will close for three months this year, in fact no decision to this effect has been made by Thai authorities. Phi Phi Nati...

Maevadi Rosenfeldt - avatar Maevadi Rosenfeldt


Breaking News & Opinion