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The impact of parental divorce or death on adolescents' education & earnings

by Christopher Bruce & Mohamed Amery

This article first appeared in the summer 2003 issue of the Expert Witness.

It is sometimes argued that individuals’ earnings will be lower if they grow up in single parent homes than in homes with two parents. If this argument is correct, it is possible that the loss of earnings experienced by a child who has been injured will be lower if that child came from a one-parent family than from a two-parent family. Conversely, however, the loss suffered by a child whose parent has been killed may be higher than would normally be assumed if the loss of that parent has meant that the child must now grow up in a single-parent family.

A number of studies are available that have explored the effect of parental absence due to divorce or death on adolescents’ labour market outcomes as adults. Although these studies are consistent in finding that the absence of a parent has some effect on adult earnings, they disagree on what that effect is. Corak, for example, concluded that whereas the earnings of women were the same regardless of family backgrounds, those of men from divorced families were approximately three percent lower than those of men from intact families.

Lang and Zagorsky confirmed Corak’s finding that “parental presence early in life [has only a minor effect on] economic well-being in adulthood” (p. 255). Nevertheless, whereas they found that a father’s presence is important for the educational attainment of both sons and daughters, a mother’s presence is significant only for the educational attainment of daughters. Also, contrary to Corak, they found (p. 255) a “strong impact of father’s presence on [a] son’s probability of being married”.

Fronstin et. al. concluded that the wages of “females, but not males, appear to be adversely affected by a father’s death, particularly when the death occurs before the child’s sixteenth birthday” (p. 151). The primary impact on men was higher unemployment rates (at age 33), particularly if the father had died when the son was between 16 and 22. Fronstin et. al. also found that disruptions occurring prior to “middle teenage years have somewhat greater adverse effects on educational attainment, while disruptions occurring into young adulthood have [their primary] adverse effects on … labour market outcomes” (p. 168).

In their book, Growing Up with a Single Parent, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, summarized the findings of a number of studies that had been conducted in the 1980s. Those studies generally found that children who were raised in single-parent families were somewhat less likely to attend college than were children of two-parent families, and much less likely to graduate from college. However, there was clear evidence that these effects were much less severe if one parent had died than if the child’s parents had divorced or had never married. These results suggest that it is not “single-parenting” per se that yields adverse effects. Rather, single parenting appears to act as a proxy for the underlying factors that lead parents not to marry, or to divorce. It is those unobserved factors that appear to have the primary impact on children’s labour market success.

Finally, Boggess found that living with a widowed, divorced, or separated mother had no effect on educational attainment. Interestingly, however, he concluded that “living in a stepfather family appears to have a persistent negative effect on high school graduation rates” (p. 205).

What these studies appear to suggest is that a child from a single-parent family may obtain slightly less education, and perform slightly less well in the labour market, than a child from a two-parent family. However, this effect will be much more pronounced if the child’s parents had never married or had divorced than if one of the child’s parents had died.


Boggess, S. (1998) “Family Structure, economic status, and Educational Attainment” 11(9) Journal of Population Economics, 205222.

Corak, Miles (2001), “Death and Divorce: The Long-term Consequences of Parental Loss on Adolescents” 19(3) Journal of Labor Economics, 682–715.

Fronstin, P. et al. (2001) “Parental Disruption and the Labour Market Performance of Children When they Reach Adulthood” 14(4) Journal of Population Economics, 137 – 172.

Lang, K. and J. L. Zagorsky (2000) “Does Growing Up With a Parent Absent Really Hurt?” 36(2) The Journal of Human Resources, 253–272.

McLanahan, S., and G. Sandefur, Growing up with a Single Parent (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), 1994.


Christopher Bruce is the President of Economica and a Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary. He is also the author of Assessment of Personal Injury Damages (Butterworths, 2004).

Mohamed Amery was a research assistant with Economica and an honours economics student at the University of Calgary.


In this article Christopher Bruce and Mohamed Amery survey recent research concerning the impact that the death or divorce of a parent will have on the lifetime earning capacity of children.

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