Recent Child, Adolescent and Family Studies Research


Social Welfare Institutions and Programs

Work Incentives and Food Stamps

Although a large body of literature exists on the work incentive effects of many other federal assistance programs, relatively little is known about the effects of the Food Stamp Program. A recent study by Schanzenbach and her colleague Hilary Hoynes of the University of California, Davis uses the cross-county introduction of the Food Stamp Program (currently known as SNAP) in the 1960s and 1970s to estimate the impact of the program on the extensive and intensive margins of labor supply, earnings, and family cash income. They find reductions in employment and hours worked when food stamps are introduced, and the reductions are concentrated among families headed by single women. The study was published in the Journal of Public Economics.

Welfare Reform and Youth Outcomes

Drawing upon the longitudinal data set called Welfare Children and Families: A Three-City Study, Chase-Lansdale and her colleagues examined the long-term strategies families have used to respond to welfare reform, in terms of employment, schooling, residential mobility, and fertility from 1999 to 2006. In general, changes in mothers’ work and welfare patterns were not associated with deterioration or improvement in youth development. The few significant associations suggested that youth whose mothers increased employment were more likely to show declines in serious behavior problems and delinquency compared to youth whose mothers were unemployed or employed part-time during the study period. Welfare roll exits were unrelated to adolescent and young adult outcomes, and mothers’ employment transitions were linked to improvements in household income and mothers’ self esteem, in addition to reductions in financial strain and their own illegal activities. However, these associations did not explain the relation between maternal employment and youths’ improved behavior. The researchers also note that these results do not support the predictions of supporters or opponents of welfare reform.

MacArthur Network on Housing for Families and Children

With a major grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, IPR social psychologist Thomas D. Cook is leading an interdisciplinary team of social scientists in carrying out a longitudinal study of how housing matters for families and children. The network is comprised of some of the nation’s top researchers in housing, poverty, and child development. Through a random-assignment study of 2,650 families and 3,450 children in four cities (Seattle, Dallas, Denver, and Cleveland), the network will gain a more direct understanding of how housing makes families stronger and improves outcomes for children. The signature study will span three and a half years, with three waves of data collection. In particular, the researchers will observe housing effects on children from birth until age eight and try to understand questions left unanswered in previous housing studies. Until now, research has developed theories for why housing matters, but there is, as of yet, little evidence of the ways in which children’s lives are improved because of better housing. As a result of the inability to definitively link specific housing characteristics to child outcomes, housing is rarely considered in policy decisions about child welfare. This study takes a broad, multidisciplinary approach, pulling together theoretical perspectives from a variety of disciplines, including statistics, sociology, economics, urban studies, education, and child development, to investigate how housing and the surrounding social, institutional, and family environment can affect children’s health, education, behavior, and life outcomes. Cook is Joan and Sarepta Harrison Chair in Ethics and Justice.

Welfare Reform and Criminal Behavior

In an article in Poverty & Public Policy, IPR social policy professor Dan Lewis and co-author Lindsay Monte of the U.S. Census Bureau examine the links between gender, welfare receipt, financial hardship, and crime. Using data from the Illinois Families Study, they looked for trends in arrests to determine whether the 1996 welfare reform legislation enacted under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program affected the criminal behavior of current and former recipients. They found that, when available, employment seems to prevent criminal behavior, lending some support to the work-first focus of TANF.

However, they found that the loss of income (whether from work or welfare), coupled with human capital characteristics, predicts criminal behavior among female welfare recipients. This suggests that those with fewer personal resources competing in the highly unstable lower-reaches of the labor market might be more likely to turn to crime. It also indicates that for some individuals, the current welfare system could actually increase the odds of criminal behavior, rather than decreasing them.

Effects of School, Life, and Family Contexts

Family Structure, Employment, and Inequality Among American Women

Income inequality in the United States has increased rapidly since the early 1970s, the same period during which women’s employment rates rose substantially and family structures diversified. IPR social demographer Christine Percheski examines how income is associated with family structure characteristics among women in their main reproductive years. Using Current Population Survey (CPS) data from 1980 to 2010, she describes how inequality in women’s total family income and in its constituent income components has changed over time. She finds that the associations between family characteristics—such as marriage, motherhood, and single motherhood—and total family income levels have remained fairly constant. However, associations between family structure and some components of income—such as women’s own earnings—have changed.

Families and Income During Recessions

Percheski is also comparing poverty, income change, and income sources by family structure for U.S. working-age adults in two recessions—the recession of the early 1980s and the most recent—as a way of showing how poverty is unequally distributed across different family structures. She notes three considerable changes in recent decades: a change in family structure such that more couples live together instead of getting married, a higher percentage of women who work, and a decrease in the availability of cash welfare due to welfare reform. Using CPS data to examine the incomes of working-age Americans from 2005 to 2009 and from 1978 to 1982, her preliminary findings show that the risk of poverty for single adults and single parents compared with that for married couples has remained relatively similar across recessions.

Neighborhoods and Health

IPR biological anthropologist Thomas McDade and IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam were part of a team, led by economist Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, that was the first to employ a randomized experimental design to learn about the connections between neighborhood poverty and health. The researchers studied 4,498 poor women and children in five major U.S. cities in the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) residential mobility program, which enrolled low-income families with children living in distressed public housing. Families volunteered for the experiment, and based on the results of a random lottery, were offered the chance to use a housing voucher subsidy to move into a lower-poverty community. Other families were randomly assigned to a control group that received no special assistance under the program. 

Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study collected information on the families who had enrolled in the program between 1994 and 1998. The research team measured the heights and weights of MTO participants and collected blood samples to test for diabetes. At the time of follow-up, 17 percent of the women in the study’s control group were morbidly obese and 20 percent had diabetes. But low-income women who received the vouchers and moved with their children to more affluent neighborhoods were less likely to be extremely overweight or diabetic, revealing better long-term health outcomes. 

Family Structure and Adolescent Marijuana Use

In a recent study, family and developmental psychologist and IPR associate Jelani Mandara assesses the relationship between family structure and marijuana use for 1,069 African American teens from the National Longitudinal Survey of  Youth. As most prior studies have found, family structure was not related to females’ marijuana use. For young men, however, being raised with both biological parents was associated with less marijuana use throughout adolescence compared with those whose mothers never married, divorced early and never remarried, or divorced and remarried. Mandara and his colleagues conclude that being raised without a biological father is a risk factor for marijuana use by young men. The study was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Housing Instability and Children’s Education Outcomes

With support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a team of researchers, including IPR education economist David Figlio, are investigating the effects of housing instability on children’s education outcomes. Using longitudinal data linking foreclosures and other kinds of housing upheavals to individual public school student records, the researchers examine four major markets suffering from unusual housing instability. Incorporating a variety of empirical strategies to separate the effects of housing instability from the effects of unobserved family characteristics, it will be possible to determine whether and how these changing schools and homes are impacting students’ educational outcomes. The results will better inform policymakers about whether, when, and how they should intervene in housing markets or tailor educational processes to reduce any negative effects that housing transitions might cause.

Stressed Teens, Happy Teens, and Health

Adam and McDade are co-principal investigators of a grant examining social influences on stress biology in a nationally representative sample of approximately 15,000 young adults, (from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health or Add Health), who have been studied since their early adolescence. The researchers are investigating connections between socioeconomic, neighborhood, and interpersonal stressors and multiple measures of stress biology and emotional and physical health in young adults. The team has published four papers so far, including a Journal of Adolescent Health article that examines how multiple types of adverse relationship experiences—loneliness, low parental support, relationship instability, intimate partner violence, and loss—relate to self-reported general health and depressive symptoms in young adulthood, both individually and cumulatively. In it, Adam and her co-authors describe how each relationship risk factor matters for adult health, but find additive rather than multiplicative effects of increasing numbers of adverse relationship experiences. The R01 project has received funding from the NICHD.

In another study, the Add Health team uncovered an association between positive psychological characteristics in adolescence and long-term health. Researchers examined answers to a series of “well-being” questions from the Add Health survey that gauged the teens’ sense of happiness, enjoyment of life, optimism, self-esteem, and social acceptance. They used these measures of positive well-being during adolescence, measured in 1994, to predict perceived general health and risky health behaviors in young adulthood, measured in 2001. The researchers controlled the study for pre-existing health conditions, socioeconomic status, depressive symptoms, and other known predictors of long-term health. A second outcome showed adolescents who reported higher positive well-being as teens were less likely to engage in risky health behaviors as young adults. The study raises important, policy-relevant questions about fostering positive youth development instead of focusing on problem behaviors. Published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the research team was composed of lead author and IPR graduate research assistant Lindsay Till Hoyt, Adam, McDade, and IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale. The study was covered widely in the press by The Atlantic, Fox News, and Chicago Sun-Times, among others.

LGBT Adolescents and Suicide Risk

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for all youth, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youths are at least twice as likely to attempt suicide as heterosexual youths. To study this, psychologist and IPR associate Brian Mustanski and his colleagues followed 246 Chicago-area sexual minority youths, ages 16 to 20 at enrollment, over two and a half years. This study was the first to examine suicide risk longitudinally in LGBT youth. The interviews reveal that 32 percent of the youth attempted suicide in their lifetime—with 6 to 7 percent in the last year. The majority (88 percent) had been bullied or victimized due to their sexual orientation. This bullying produced feelings of hopelessness and depression that then went on to predict suicide attempts. Social support from family and friends had protective effects that offer opportunities to save lives.

Incarceration of Youth and Adults 

Underlying Problems of Delinquency

Each year between 300,000 and 600,000 youth spend time in juvenile detention facilities around the nation, with a disproportionate number being low-income and minority youth. IPR economist Jonathan Guryan, with Sara Heller and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, is examining the underlying problems that cause youth to become involved with delinquency and violence. Previous research indicates that deficits in noncognitive skills—such as self-regulation, impulse control, social information processing, and moral reasoning—might account for involvement with, and relapses into, delinquency. Using a randomized experimental design and with support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the researchers will begin collecting data on all the approximately 4,000 male juveniles, most of whom are Latino or African American, entering a county juvenile detention system over 14 months. These youth have been randomly assigned to either a typical residential center or one providing a cognitive behavioral therapy intervention to promote noncognitive skill development. The researchers have uncovered themes shared by a number of effective interventions, which might prove to be efficacious in part because they promote adaptive personality trait development. 

Maltreatment Among Detained Youth

Childhood maltreatment is common among detained youths and is also highly associated with psychiatric disorders. As part of the Northwestern Project, a team of clinical researchers assessed the history of childhood maltreatment and psychiatric diagnosis for 1,829 youths detained at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. The project, led by behavioral scientist and IPR associate Linda Teplin, Owen L. Coon Professor, is the nation’s largest longitudinal, epidemiological study of the mental health needs and outcomes of delinquent youth, many of whom are now young adults. Of those they interviewed for the study, more than three-quarters of females and more than two-thirds of males had a history of moderate or severe physical abuse. More than 40 percent of females and 10 percent of males had a history of sexual abuse. Females and non-Hispanic whites had the highest prevalence rates of childhood maltreatment. Among youths who were sexually abused, abuse with force was associated with anxiety disorders among females and attention-deficit hyperactivity, or disruptive behavior disorders and substance use disorders, among males. Teplin calls for the mental health, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems to collaborate to ensure that these youth receive protection and care when they return to their communities. The article was published in Psychiatric Services

Children of Incarcerated Parents

Sociologist and legal scholar John Hagan continues his work with Holly Foster of  Texas A&M University to trace how having an incarcerated parent can affect a child’s life. Parental incarceration affects about one-fifth of elementary school children in the United States. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health for 2,000 children of incarcerated fathers, Hagan and Foster are following the children into mid-adolescence and early adulthood. One finding is that having an imprisoned father and also attending a school where many other children have fathers in prison can lower college completion rates from 40 to 10 percent. Another finding is that these fathers go missing during a critical development period for the children, and this absence then follows their children through life, compounding their inability to complete college and severely limiting their future opportunities. Hagan is John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Law.

Urban Drop-Outs and Truancy

While urban high school dropouts have received a great deal of policy attention, the problem almost always starts much earlier with truancy from school. However, very little is known about the risk and protective factors that lead to truancy—and even less about effective remedies. To shed light on this issue, IPR economist Jonathan Guryan is leading the first large-scale, randomized effectiveness trial of Check & Connect, a structured mentoring, monitoring, and case management program. This intervention focuses on reducing chronic absenteeism and improving school engagement by pairing a mentor with students at risk for dropping out of school. Sixteen mentors, trained in methods for promoting school engagement, began working with 415 students in fall 2011 for two years. The students have a record of chronic absences in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The researchers will then compare the assigned students to control groups of more than 4,000 CPS students within the 24 treatment and control schools. Other data, such as arrest records, will be included, and researchers are conducting personal surveys with students and their parents to pinpoint changes in family structure and dynamics that might contribute to the student’s truancy. The project is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Institute of Education Sciences, and William T. Grant Foundation.

Effects of the Obesity Crisis

“No Child Left Behind” and Obesity

Schools facing increased pressures to produce academic outcomes might reallocate their efforts in ways that have unintended consequences for children’s health. For example, the new financial pressures due to accountability rules might induce school administrators to try to raise new funds through outside food and beverage contracts, or schools might cut back on recess and physical education in favor of increasing time on tested subjects. To examine the impact of school accountability programs, Schanzenbach and her colleagues have created a unique panel data set of elementary schools in Arkansas that allows them to test the impact of the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s rules on students’ body weights. They find that schools under pressure from NCLB have about a 0.5 percentage point higher rate of students that are overweight. A follow-up survey of principals also points to reductions in physical activity and the use of food as a reward and source of external funding as potential mechanisms. Understanding how the school environment might contribute to obesity is key since school environments are more within the control of policymakers than the family environment.

School Attendance and Obesity

In a Journal of Health Economics article, IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and her colleagues investigate the impact of attending school on body weight and obesity. As is the case with academic outcomes, school exposure is related to unobserved determinants of weight outcomes because some families choose to have their child start school later or earlier than others. When this factor is unaccounted for, it appears that an additional year of school exposure results in a greater BMI and a higher probability of being overweight or obese. However, when the researchers compared the weight outcomes of similar age children with one versus two years of school exposure due to regulations on school starting age, the significant positive effects disappear, and most point estimates become negative, but insignificant. However, for children not eating the school lunch, school exposure reduces the probability of being overweight. Additional school exposure also appears to improve weight outcomes of children for whom the transition to elementary school represents a more dramatic change in environment, such as those who spent less time in childcare prior to kindergarten. 

Food Packages, Regulation, and Obesity

The nation’s obesity crisis has led to increased scrutiny of the packaging, labeling, and marketing of food and beverage products. In particular, much attention has turned to the use of front-of-package (FOP) labeling systems, used to summarize and highlight a product’s key nutritional aspects. As chair of the Institute of Medicine Study Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols, communication studies researcher and IPR associate Ellen Wartella, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication, is leading a national effort to review current FOP trends and suggest improvements. The committee, requested by Congress, is joint between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Little evidence has been gathered about which FOP systems and symbols, if any, actually help consumers make healthier food choices. A report released by the committee in October 2011 found that, to be most effective, FOP labeling should aim for a broad audience and prominently display a simplified nutrition label, much like the Energy Star labels on appliances. 

Childhood Programs and Development

Linking Parental and Child Education

A large body of evidence suggests that children who do well in school earn more, enjoy better health, and have higher levels of life satisfaction. Prior research also shows that performance in school is strongly linked to family characteristics, including parental education. However, few studies have tried to identify the causal effects of parental education on children’s education, and the channels through which any causal effects operate have yet to be explored. IPR education economist David Figlio and his colleagues are working on a set of interrelated projects to study the correlations between parental education and children’s schooling, and they are analyzing the extent to which these correlations represent causal links. Using a new data set linking statewide and district-level individual administrative education records and birth records from Florida, they will also provide new evidence on the relationship between parental education, aspects of parental behavior, the neighborhood in which children live, the type of school children attend, and the type of teacher children are assigned to. Understanding this correlation could have strong public health implications given the known linkages between individual human capital and health outcomes. This project is supported by funding from the Gates Foundation, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Institute of Education Sciences.

Two-Generation Education Intervention

IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and IPR research scientist Teresa Eckrich Sommer recently received awards from the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to expand to a large, mixed-methods longitudinal study of the CareerAdvance® Program (CAP), known as the CAP Family Life Study. It is a unique two-generation intervention that links postsecondary education and career training of low-income parents to their children’s development through early childhood education centers. Past research by Chase-Lansdale and Sommer indicates that such a program could harness parents’ hopes for their children’s educational success as motivation for their own educational progress. In addition to early childhood education centers and community college healthcare work force programs, CareerAdvance® also provides a number of key supportive components—career coaches, financial incentives, and peer group meetings—to prepare parents for high-demand jobs in the healthcare sector. Chase-Lansdale was also selected as one of the inaugural fellows of the Aspen Institute’s Ascend Fellowship, which supports national leaders who are working to move families out of poverty using two-generation strategies. 

National Children’s Study

IPR associate and pediatrician Jane Holl is leading the Greater Chicago Study Center of the National Children’s Study. It will follow 100,000 women from across the United States—who are pregnant or expect to become pregnant—and their child from birth to 21 years of age. The Chicago team has taken an innovative recruitment and enrollment approach that relies on direct outreach through community engagement, advertising, and social media to potential participants. The study will employ a comprehensive, open-source information management system. It also includes many innovative research projects, including a study by anthropologists McDade and William Funk, an IPR associate, to develop and evaluate an efficient and cost-effective method to assess infant and child exposures to environmentally toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, in addition to chemicals related to traffic pollution.

Health Disparities and Development

Supported by NICHD, the Community Child Health Network is a longitudinal study examining health disparities in fetal growth and preterm birth, child development, obesity, and asthma at five sites, including the Illinois site, Community Action for Child Health Equity (CACHÉ). CACHÉ explores how community, family, and individual influences interact with biological influences, resulting in disparities in perinatal health outcomes and infant and early childhood mortality and morbidity. Pediatrician and IPR associate Madeleine Shalowitz is co-principal investigator, and several IPR/C2S faculty are involved. Adam is working with Clarissa Simon, a Northwestern graduate student, to study how the transition to parenthood affects the stress biology and health of new mothers and fathers.

Cigarette Exposure and Disruptive Behavior

IPR clinical and developmental psychologist Lauren Wakschlag continues her work to map out how to distinguish children’s “normal” disruptive behavior from clinical problems. Previous research has shown a robust link between children exposed to cigarettes when they were in utero and later patterns of disruptive behavior. In new work, Wakschlag and her colleagues interviewed and assessed 211 teens and their parents from the East Boston Family Study. The researchers measured damage from prenatal exposure to cigarettes on the teens’ cerebral cortex. They then used tightly defined measures to examine the cohort for four different types of disruptive behavior: being aggressive, not complying with rules and social norms, losing one’s temper, and lack of concern or disregard for others. Using multivariate models, they controlled for the teens’ age and sex, prenatal and present second-hand tobacco exposure, maternal and paternal antisocial behavior, and family adversity. Exposure uniquely predicts whether the teens tended to be aggressive and noncompliant. Whereas other studies have found boys exhibit more disruptive behaviors, they uncover no differences by gender. Their results, here and from prior work, also show that involved parenting might have provided a protective effect against the problems associated with prenatal exposure even into late adolescence. This points to a need for development of parenting-based prevention efforts to reduce risk to children exposed to tobacco in utero and in childhood. Their findings were published in Neurotoxicology and Teratology. The study was supported by a National Institute on Drug Abuse grant.

Low-Income Dads and Kids’ Health

For the first time, a study has examined how low-income, urban fathers are involved in their children’s health. The study, led by pediatrician and IPR associate Craig Garfield, focused on 31 primarily African American and Hispanic fathers from Chicago and Milwaukee who were an average of 31 years old. The men were a subsample of the national Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study. Of the sample, 55 percent were single and 41 percent had an income of $34,999 or less. More than half of the fathers reported modeling exercise behaviors and engaging their children in play as ways to promote their child’s health, the study reports. The fathers said they knew their behavior influences their children’s habits, and they often tried to set a good example. While fathers had no difficulty telling their children to eat more broccoli or run a lap, they were less comfortable dispensing medicine or handling an emergency room visit. Given the number of single dads, stay-at-home fathers, and the general increase in father involvement overall, Garfield calls this a “wake-up call” for healthcare providers to include and educate fathers as key partners in their children’s health, rather than exclusively focus on mothers. The study was published in the Psychology of Men and Masculinity.