Does Family Structure Affect Children's Educational Outcomes?

Donna K. Ginther and Robert A. Pollak
Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
Working Paper 2000-13a
December 2000

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In this paper we examine the effect of family structure on children’s educational outcomes by exploiting the sibling structure in the NLSY and NLSY-Child to control for unobserved heterogeneity across families and individuals. We also compare outcomes for children within the same family—stepchildren with their half-siblings in the same blended family who are the biological children of both parents. Using panel data methods to control for unobserved heterogeneity across families, we find that family structure effects are statistically insignificant. Finally, comparing half-siblings in our data, we find no difference in educational outcomes as a function of family structure. Our empirical results are consistent with at least two interpretations. First, they can be interpreted as evidence that estimates of family structure effects reflect selection rather than causation. Second, they can be interpreted as evidence that the presence of stepchildren disrupts families.

JEL classification: J12, J13, J24

Key words: family structure, children, education

The authors thank Anne Case, Irwin Garfinkel, and James Heckman, who discussed the authors’ paper at the AEA meetings in Boston in January, 2000, for their helpful suggestions. They also thank Daniel Black, Paula England, Nancy Folbre, Sara McLanahan, Gary Sandefur, and Robert Willis for helpful comments. The authors thank the Graduate School at Washington University for providing funding for this research, and David Lang for excellent research assistance. Pollak thanks the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for financial support. Previous versions of this paper were presented at the American Economic Association Annual Meeting and the MacArthur Network on the Family and the Economy and the NICHD Family and Child Wellbeing Research Network conference “Conflict and Cooperation in Families.” The views expressed here are the authors’ and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta or the Federal Reserve System. Any remaining errors are the authors’ responsibility.

Please address questions regarding content to Donna K. Ginther, Research Department, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, 104 Marietta Street, N.W., Atlanta, Georgia 30303-2713, 404-498-7009, 404-498-8058 (fax),, or Robert A. Pollak, Department of Economics, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri 63130-4899, 314-935-4918, 314-935-4156 (fax),