Children, Youth and Families

Janet M. Currie • Sara F. McLanahan


In The Future of Children, Janet Currie and Nancy Reichman co-edited, “Policies to Promote Child Health: Introducing the Issue.” Five broad, overlapping themes emerge from this issue: a wide range of policies are important for promoting child health; responsibility for promoting child health is fragmented, with a lack of consensus about government’s appropriate role; we have a “crisis response” mentality that doesn’t focus on prevention and often precludes implementing policies in ways that would let us thoughtfully evaluate their efficacy; information about cost-effectiveness is severely lacking; and poor and minority children typically face the greatest health risks.

A large volume of high-quality research shows that unhealthy children grow up to be unhealthy adults, that poor health and low income go hand in hand, and that the consequences of both poverty and poor health make large demands on public coffers. Consequently, promoting children’s health is essential for improving the popula¬tion’s health. Policies that help to prevent children’s health problems can be wise investments, so policy makers should implement care¬fully-designed policies and programs that promote child health.


Mounting evidence across different disciplines suggests that early-life conditions can have consequences on individual outcomes throughout the lifecycle. Relative to other developed countries, the United States fares poorly on standard indicators of early-life health, and this disadvantage may have profound consequences not only for population wellbeing, but also for economic growth and competitiveness in a global economy. In the paper, “Early-life Origins of Lifecycle Well-being: Research and Policy Implications,” Janet Currie and Maya Rossin-Slater (University of California, Santa Barbara) first discuss the research on the strength of the link between early-life health and adult outcomes, and then provide an evidence-based review of the effectiveness of existing U.S. policies targeting the early-life environment. They conclude that there is a robust and economically meaningful relationship between early-life conditions and wellbeing throughout the lifecycle, as measured by adult health, educational attainment, labor market attachment, and other indicators of socio-economic status. However, there is some variation in the degree to which current policies in the U.S. are effective in improving early-life conditions. Among existing programs, some of the most effective are the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), home visiting with nurse practitioners and high-quality, center-based early childhood care and education. In contrast, the evidence on other policies such as prenatal care and family leave is more mixed and limited.


In Janet Currie, Valentia Duque (Columbia University) and Irwin Garfinkel’s (Columbia University) article, “Mother’s and Father’s Health,” published in Children of the Great Recession, Irwin Garfinkel and Sara McLanahan (Editors), the authors examined mother’s health during the Great Recession. Their findings reveal that higher U.S. unemployment rates during the Great Recession led to poorer self-reported health and increased levels of smoking and drug use among mothers. Disadvantaged mothers—black and Hispanic, low-educated and unmarried—experienced greater health deteriorations than advantaged mothers—white, married and college educated.


The Future of Children, Policy Brief Spring 2015 issue, Ron Haskins, (Brookings Institute), Janet Currie and Lawrence Berger (University of Wisconsin, Madison) published an article titled, “Can States Improve Children’s Health by Preventing Abuse and Neglect?,” where they conclude that policy and program development in child welfare over recent decades makes for an interesting and important story. Following the mandate of federal and state law that the holy grail of child welfare is safety, permanence, and child wellbeing, states have shown that they can increase adoptions and reduce foster care placements. Further, research increasingly shows that many programs for children, families, and communities can effectively reduce mental health problems, addiction, and other troubles that afflict families and children so that safety, permanence, and wellbeing can increase. The annual statistics on confirmed cases of abuse, neglect, and child deaths show that the nation still has a long way to go. The prevention and treatment programs that have been shown to effectively promote child welfare, usually without removing children from their families, are expensive, though they can save money in the long run. Thus, most states argue that with more funding they could provide more, and more effective, programs and services. Now 30 states are conducting waiver demonstrations to show that they can use funds that would normally be spent on foster care to pay for prevention and treatment services to promote child welfare. The combination of more effective programs, organizational and program reform associated with the waiver demonstrations, and the ongoing loss of federal funds caused in large part by the declining foster care caseload has intensified the debate in Congress about giving states more flexibility in using federal funds, even at the cost of terminating an open-ended funding program.


Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill (Brookings) edited a volume of The Future of Children entitled “Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited.” The volume featured chapters on ‘Why Marriage Matters,” by David Ribar (Melbourne Institute), “Cohabitation and Child Wellbeing,” by Wendy Manning (Bowling Green University), “Marriage and Family: LBGT Individuals and Same Sex Couples, by Gary Gates (University of California, Los Angeles), “The Growing Racial and Ethnic Divide,” by Kelly Raley (University of Texas), Megan M. Sweeney (University of California, Los Angeles) and Danielle Wondra (University of California, Los Angeles), and “Lessons Learned from Non-Marriage Experiments” by Daniel Schneider (University of California, Berkeley).


In “Income, Relationship Quality, and Parenting: Associations with Child Development in Two-Parent Families,” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Lonnie Berger (University of Washington, Madison) and Sara McLanahan examined how income, relationship quality, and parenting are associated with child development in two-parent families. Focusing on children at the time they enter kindergarten, they found only weak evidence of differences in benefits across family types. Instead, they found that children living in stepfather families experienced above-average levels of parental relationship quality and parenting quality, which in turn played a protective role vis-à-vis children’s cognitive and social/emotional development.


In “Family Structure Transitions and Child Development,” published in the American Sociological Review, Dohoon Lee (New York University) and Sara McLanahan showed that family instability has a causal effect on children’s development, but the effect depends on the type of change, the outcome assessed, and the population examined. For example, the researchers found that transitions out of a two-parent family were more negative for children’s development than transitions into a two-parent family. They also found that the effect of instability was more pronounced for children’s socio-emotional development than for their cognitive achievement.


In "Diverging Destinies Revisited," in Amato, Booth, McHale, and VanHook (Editors) Families in an Era of Increasing Inequality: Diverging Destinies, Sara McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen extended her 2004 presidential address to the Population Association of America by updating the evidence with recent trends in the U.S. and new analyses from other countries, including Japan, Australia, and EU countries. The 2004 address argued that in the U.S. and other Western countries, the second demographic transition was leading to two very different trajectories for women—with very different implications for children. Whereas for children born to mothers with a college degree, the changes in family behavior were associated with gains in parental resources, for children born to less educated mothers, the changes were associated with relative and, in some instances, absolute losses in resources. The authors concluded that the trends observed in the U.S. are occurring in most other industrialized countries.


In “The Academic Consequences of Early Childhood Problem Behaviors,” published in Social Science Research, Kristin Turney (University of California, Irvine) and Sara McLanahan examined how social/emotional skills are associated with cognitive test scores in middle childhood. Results showed that externalizing and attention problems measured at ages 3 and 5, were associated with lower test scores in middle childhood, net of a wide array of control variables and prior test scores.


In another Social Science Research paper, “Asian Mothers and Children's Verbal Development in Australia and the United States," Kate Choi (Western University), Amy Hsin (Queens College) and Sara McLanahan assessed the pervasiveness of the Asian academic advantage by examining White-Asian differences in verbal development from early to middle childhood in the U.S. and Australia. The researchers found that the Asian-origin verbal advantage can be explained by parents’ socioeconomic advantage in the U.S. and by parents’ educational advantage in Australia.


In "Was Moynihan Right?" published in Education Next, Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks described the trends in non-marital childbearing and single motherhood in the U.S. and the association between these trends and child poverty and educational success.