"Social Capital"-a theoretical conceptualization that defines strong social ties and healthy social habits as a sort of social wealth-is providing researchers with an investigative lens through which to see more clearly why the family matters. In a recent attempt to expand the meaning of "social capital" as "a theoretical metaphor," researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Tulane University found themselves again and again confronting the centrality of family bonds in fostering "constructive, goal-oriented" behavior among young people.
By drawing on data collected in 1995 by the National Opinion Research Center, the authors of the new study examine how well various measures of social capital predict "desirable outcomes for young people." The researchers' statistical tests highlight the importance of "the depth and intensity of ties between parents and children." Deep and intense parent-child ties, it turns out, grow out of a kind of "intergenerational closure" that depends upon "family socioeconomic status, two-parent family structure, and organizational involvement on the part of both parents and children."
The importance of family structure stands out in zero-order correlations linking the two-parent family not only to desirable child outcomes (such as higher grades in school, stronger belief in hard work, and stronger desire for higher education), but also to healthy social patterns thought to incubate such desirable outcomes. These healthy patterns include those which make parents more involved in their children's lives, more trusting in and understanding of their children, more likely to be acquainted with their neighbors, more likely to belong to civic and school organizations, more likely to know the parents of their children's friends, and more likely to get their children involved in religion.
In contrast, single-parent family structure predicts not only less desirable child outcomes (i.e., lower grades in school, weaker belief in hard work, and weaker desire for higher education), but also a tangle of social patterns suspected of independently retarding such outcomes. That is, compared to married parents, solo parents are less involved in their children's lives, less trusting of and less understanding of their children, know fewer of their neighbors, belong to fewer civic and school organizations, know fewer of their children's friends' parents, and less often bring their children to church or synagogue.
The UCLA and Tulane scholars stress that a number of the social handicaps of single-parent homes persist even in sophisticated multivariate statistical models that take into account difference in economic and demographic background. Thus, "children in single-parent families engage in fewer activities with their parents, even after [researchers] control for economic circumstances." Likewise, "single-parent family structure is associated with fewer links between parents and the social circles of children," even when background differences in households are taken into account. The researchers also adduce evidence that "the negative association between single-parent family structure and school performance" reflects, at least in part, the way "single parents ... tend to be less involved in [civic and school] organizations" and the way single-parent behavior results in "a lack of intergenerational closure in single-parent families."
Although the researchers regard their findings as relevant for all Americans, they see them as particularly meaningful for one struggling minority group: "The prevalence of single-parent families among black students does statistically explain part of the negative association between being black and school outcomes, a finding that is consistent with the social capital process."