Single parent or poverty? Study looks at which affects good parenting most.

A new study finds that practices associated with good parenting are more connected to income level than family structure. For many single parents, the problem is less that they're single, and more that they have only one salary.

Single mother Nora Cedillo Contreras got assistance from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas and Broadway Bank to buy her first home in 2010. A new study suggests finances affects good parenting more than single parenthood.

Income level, rather than family structure, has the greatest impact on whether parents read to their children, eat dinner together, or engage in any number of positive parenting practices, according to a new report put out today by the nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families.

For years, studies have suggested that single parents lag behind married couples when it comes to providing children the sort of enrichment activities that child development experts say have long-term impact on kids’ emotional and cognitive health, such as monitoring media access and facilitating participation in extracurricular activities. But it turns out that those differences all but disappear when income disparities are taken away, according to today’s report.

In other words, single moms are less likely to shuttle their children to sports practices not because they are parenting solo, but because they have fewer resources, explains Sandra Hofferth, professor of family science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, who authored the paper.

“With a single parent, there’s only one earner.... When it comes to ferrying children to lessons or sports, they just can’t do it,” she says. “We found that parenting differs mostly because of resources – more so than by family structure.”

Take the sports example. Those children living in poverty are half as likely to be involved in extracurricular athletics (22.5 percent) as those living in families with incomes at 200 percent or more of the poverty level (42.5 percent). That’s about double the difference between single parents and married parents.

The finding is particularly noteworthy, given the high level of child poverty in the United States, researchers say.  More than a quarter of all children under age 6 live in families with incomes below the poverty line, which last year the US government set at $23,850 a year for a family of four. That number grows even higher in single-parent families; nearly 41 percent of children growing up with only one parent are poor, compared with 14 percent of children in married-couple families.  

All of this, Professor Hofferth and others say, means that parenting would be most improved by poverty alleviation and child care policies, rather than initiatives, such as marriage promotion programs, that seek to change family structure.

Indeed, she found that despite the substantial difference in affluence, single parents seem to be working extra to engage in beneficial parenting practices. Single parents, for instance, are only slightly behind their married counterparts when it comes to time spent reading to children. Young children of single parents are read to an average of six times a week, compared with children of married parents, who are read to 6.8 times a week.  And a slightly higher proportion of teenagers living with a single parent (35 percent) than living with two married parents (32 percent) report eating dinner as a family at least five days of week. (Researchers say this correlates with the lower number of teenagers of single parents who participate in those extracurricular activities that tend to break up family dinner.)

“Overall, I took away the message that parents are really doing a great job,” Hofferth says. “And many in difficult circumstances.”

Her research also suggest that American parents, as a group, have adopted similar values when it comes to child rearing, says Virginia Rutter, a sociologist at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

“When I looked at this I thought, ‘Wow, we’re all after really similar things for children,’ ” Professor Rutter says. “We want to read to them, to get engaged and involved. When you take into account how much material resources people have, you see that parents are doing really similar things to help their children live their best lives.”

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