Recent Child, Adolescent and Family Studies Research


Social Welfare Institutions and Programs 

Parents Benefit from Head Start

Head Start—the oldest and largest federally funded U.S. preschool program—might help low-income parents improve their educational status, according to work by developmental psychologist and IPR associate Terri Sabol and IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale. The 1998 Head Start Impact Study (HSIS), a congressionally mandated evaluation of the program, found that Head Start had less of an impact on children’s academic and social development than expected, with short-term gains fading through elementary school. However, the two researchers wondered what the benefits looked like for parents. They hypothesized Head Start might help parents balance work, school, and family by providing an affordable, safe place to send their children while they go to work or school. Using HSIS data, they found that parents of 3-year-olds in Head Start had higher levels of educational attainment—but not employment—by the time their children turned 6 years old, compared with parents in the control group, whose children were not in Head Start. The pattern was especially strong for African American parents and for those with some college but no degree. The researchers did not observe effects for parents whose children entered later and only had one year in the program instead of two. The research was supported by a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development postdoctoral training fellowship for Sabol.

Long-Term Effects of Food Stamps

Could access to social safety net programs as children have effects lasting into adulthood? Building upon their previous research, IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, along with Hilary Hoynes of the University of California, Berkeley and Douglas Almond of Columbia University, examined a cohort of food stamp recipients from 1961–75, who were between 30 and 50 years old at the time of the study. They discovered those exposed to food stamps early in life (before age 5) had measurably better health in adulthood. They exhibited lower obesity rates and lower rates of metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The benefits also extended beyond health to work outcomes. Interestingly, women who benefitted from food stamps as children were more likely to graduate from high school, earn more, and rely less on the social safety net as adults than those who did not. The New York Times and other media outlets cited the report, and Schanzenbach and her co-authors were sought-after experts during congressional debate over funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the new name for the food stamp program.

Poor Families and Food Security

Why are some low-income families with children able to get enough food to feed their families, while other families with similar income levels are not? Schanzenbach is considering this question from three angles with three datasets. Pulling together data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and the food security supplement of the Current Population Survey (CPS), she and her co-authors are examining how resources, behavior, and prices for families compare with those for families who have a different food-security status. They merged data from the American Time Use Survey with CPS data to understand differences in how families with varying levels of access to food spend their time working, planning meals, shopping, and cooking. They also investigated differences in eating and spending patterns. Results indicate that households cycle in and out of food insecurity and that a mother’s mental health seems to be an important predictor of food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided project support.

Food Insecurity and the Great Recession

Food insecurity spiked dramatically during the Great Recession, with a record 49 million Americans in food-insecure households. With funding from the Russell Sage Foundation, Schanzenbach and her colleagues are determining if families from this period onward have had consistent access to healthy foods and whether family members have skipped meals, gone hungry, or not had enough money to buy food. Their early data show that from 2004–07, slightly more than 11 percent of U.S. households were classified as food insecure. This rose to nearly 15 percent in 2008–11. One out of five households with children under the age of 18 is now considered food insecure, with those led by single mothers particularly at risk. While still trying to understand the actual causes behind the increase in food insecurity, the researchers do point to a series of “insults” brought on by dramatic job losses: No income meant no subsidies from the Earned Income Tax Credit. Access to credit dried up, in particular from home equity. Food and energy cost more—though inflation has been low overall—soaking up a larger share of low-income household budgets. When taken together, the unfavorable conditions closed off avenues that the poor typically use to weather bad economic patches. 

Effects of School, Life, and Family Contexts

Effects of Motherhood on Family Characteristics

In a new project, IPR social demographer Christine Percheski investigates how the timing of a woman’s first birth affects her family characteristics and risk of having an income below the poverty line. To estimate the effect of a woman’s age at first birth, she compares women whose first pregnancy led to the birth of a baby with those who had a miscarriage. Preliminary results suggest that women who give birth are not any more likely to be poor, but they are less likely to have very high incomes.

Timing of Motherhood and Education

With IPR graduate research assistant Yu-Han Jao, Percheski has started an offshoot of a project on the effects of motherhood that compares women born in 1957–64 with those born in 1980–84. They find that overall, women born in the 1980s completed more years of education than those born in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Looking at women who had their first child in their teens or early 20s, they observe that women born in the 1980s had less completed education than similar women in the older cohort. Part of this is explained by differences in the characteristics of women who had a baby at an earlier age, like their socioeconomic background, but easily measured family characteristics or aptitude measures do not account for the full disparity.

Wealth and Human Capital Across Generations

How do family traits shape wealth and well-being from one generation to the next? In two working papers, economist and IPR associate Joseph Ferrie is evaluating Georgia’s Cherokee Land Lottery of 1832 to analyze how a sudden influx of wealth affects families over time. All white males 18 years and older who were state residents three years prior to the 1832 drawing were eligible for the lottery. Winners received $700 land parcels—a sizable amount for the time. In the first working paper, Ferrie and his co-author examine if parents use their sudden wealth to invest more in their children—more specifically, educating and raising them in ways that pass on human capital traits to enhance their job prospects and labor outcomes. Using U.S. census records through 1880, the researchers followed lottery entrants, their children, and their grandchildren over nearly five decades. They find that lottery winners had around 3 percent more children than nonwinners, but that the winners’ descendants were no more literate, wealthy, or educated than those of nonwinners. The slight increase in the size of winners’ families also disappeared by the third generation. From this, the researchers surmise that family characteristics are more important to intergenerational transmission of wealth and social status than family wealth. In the second working paper, Ferrie and Hoyt Bleakley of the University of Michigan evaluate the lottery winners’ wealth 18 years after their win. They reveal that the lottery’s wealth “shock” actually increased inequality over time—with rich winners becoming even richer and poor ones, poorer. They speculate that winning families from poorer backgrounds likely had less savvy money management practices than their richer peers.

Stress and Sleep in Young Adults

In a 10-year longitudinal study supported by the National Institutes of Health and the William T. Grant Foundation, IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam explores what differences in stress might mean for teens as they move from high school to college and work. How does it affect their levels of depression and anxiety during this transition? In addition to using annual interviews, questionnaires, and diaries to capture changes in the youths’ experiences over time, the researchers also track physiological effects by measuring cortisol, a hormone indicating stress, collected from small saliva samples, and sleep quality from wristwatch-sized “actigraphs” they wear. Adam is examining if differences in stress exposure, stress hormone levels, and sleep quality can help further understanding of why some adolescents remain emotionally healthy and others develop depression and anxiety disorders as they negotiate this transitional period. Results suggest that interpersonal stressors and sleeping less are associated with changes in stress hormone patterns across the day and with youth becoming depressed. Even after accounting for the effects of various life events, such as losing a family member or conflict with friends, individuals with higher surges in stress hormones in the morning hours are at increased risk for depression over the next two and a half years, and onsets of anxiety disorders, particularly social anxiety disorder, over the next four years.

Intervention to Help Adolescents Sleep More

In 2014, Adam began preparing a new pilot study for a project called the Stronger Sleep Study, an intervention aimed at increasing the amount and quality of sleep for adolescents. The project will measure high school students’ sleep on a daily basis, and then participants will receive individualized feedback via text message. The messages will guide them to slightly earlier bedtimes, which Adam hopes will result in an improvement in the overall hours and quality of sleep that students’ receive. The new project is funded by an IPR seed grant. 

Immigrant Children and Parents’ Assimilation

In an IPR working paper, Ferrie and Ilyana Kuziemko of Columbia University examine the link between the presence of children in U.S. immigrant households and the human capital acquisition of their immigrant parents from 1850–2010.The researchers first demonstrate that immigrants who arrived in the Great Migration, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were substantially less likely to arrive with children than more recent immigrants. They then show that assimilation appears slower for more recent cohorts than for those who arrived during the Great Migration, though in both eras cohort quality declines over time. Finally, they show that the children of the earlier immigrants were more assimilated than those of more recent ones.

Family Complexity and Child Healthcare

Using data from two health surveys, Percheski and Sharon Bzostek of Rutgers University are the first to link national data on health insurance coverage and medical care for siblings. Though siblings in most American families are covered by a single health insurance plan, an increasing proportion of children in the United States live in families with complicated family structures and with a mix of immigrant and U.S.-born family members. These are situations in which children in the same family might not qualify for the same health insurance coverage. In Social Science and Medicine, the researchers present results revealing that when children in the same family have public insurance, through programs such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), while their siblings are either privately insured or uninsured, they are less likely to have a regular doctor or practice where they get treatment than similar children whose siblings have the same type of insurance plan that they do. Since having a usual source of care is linked to better healthcare outcomes, Percheski and Bzostek argue that policymakers should consider how to reduce mixed coverage among children in the same families.

Committed in Sickness and in Health?

Married individuals tend to have better health than unmarried individuals, but the rising prevalence of cohabiting relationships raises the question of whether this difference is related to if couples living together are married or not. Percheski, with IPR graduate research assistant Jess Meyer, examines the associations between health and health behaviors with divorce or the end of relationships among married and cohabiting parents with young children. Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, the two find that health differences between the two types of couples are linked to marital status and gender. Notably, only fathers’ depression is associated with dissolving a relationship among cohabiters. But, in addition to paternal depression, two factors stand out for married couples—fathers’ health-related work limitations and mothers’ self-rated health.

Effects of the Economy on Well-Being

What Is Wealth Without Health?

IPR economist Matthew Notowidigdo received the Hicks-Tinbergen Award from the Journal of the European Economic Association for an article exploring whether a person’s health might affect his or her economic decisions. Notowidigdo and his colleagues, MIT’s Amy Finkelstein and Dartmouth’s Erzo Luttmer, drew on panel data from the Health and Retirement Study, a representative sample of Americans over the age of 50 that includes questions on income, health, and happiness, using the happiness data as a proxy for “utility,” or a person’s overall level of satisfaction. They learn that across the board, people with worse health report less satisfaction when buying goods or services. They also find that for wealthier people, happiness declines more when their health worsens, as compared with lower-income individuals. The researchers interpret these findings as evidence that marginal utility—the incremental gain in happiness from extra income or more consumption—is higher for the healthy. They suggest there is a lesson here for health insurers, who could potentially reduce reimbursements for medical expenses. That way, people would have more to spend on other things besides high insurance premiums when they are healthy—and receive more satisfaction from such spending. When they become sick, on the other hand, they would pay more out-of-pocket for their healthcare, but as this research shows, they would derive less happiness from spending their money elsewhere in any case. 

Childhood Programs and Development

First Policy Research Briefing in Evanston

Building upon Chase-Lansdale’s expertise in a growing field, two-generation initiatives were the topic of the first IPR policy research briefing held in Evanston. On April 16, 130 parents, students, faculty, local policymakers, and community members—including Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl—gathered at Evanston Township High School to learn more about how to provide greater opportunities for low-income families by furthering education for parents and their children simultaneously. Chase-Lansdale, who is Frances Willard Professor in Human Development and Social Policy and is Northwestern’s associate provost for faculty, and IPR research associate professor Teresa Eckrich Sommer presented preliminary findings from Evanston’s pilot program. IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin shared research on asset-accumulation approaches that target children and parents, which could be incorporated into two-generation programs. He focused on children’s savings accounts, which do not just help low-income students make up for wealth disparities, but also make them more likely to attend and succeed in college. Education researcher and sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin–Madison shared her findings from studying college-going parents, suggesting institutions can do much more to help these student-parents succeed. Said Illinois State Representative Robyn Gabel (D–Evanston), following the briefing, “I’m very impressed with this new research, really looking at a two-generation program and approach to improving children’s chances for success. I very much agree with the theory that in order to improve children’s chances, you need to improve their parents’ education as well.” The briefing was co-sponsored with the Childcare Network of Evanston, Evanston Township High School, Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy, the Evanston Community Foundation, and Ascend at the Aspen Institute.

Two-Generation Education Programs

Two-generation initiatives—education programs for low-income, preschool-age children and their parents—are emerging across the United States. Chase-Lansdale continues her work in this area, focusing on these interventions in her own backyard. She and Sommer are assessing a pilot program that began in 2014 in collaboration with the Evanston Community Foundation and supported by Ascend at the Aspen Institute. A mix of community nonprofits and businesses, including Evanston school districts, early childhood education centers, a public library, and a community college, have all partnered with the initiative. The program offers educational, financial, and career guidance for parents and early high-quality education for their children up to age 6 through enrollment in community-partner programs. The first cohort of 13 mothers all graduated from the program. In helping to develop the Evanston initiative, Chase-Lansdale and Sommer relied on lessons learned from their ongoing evaluation of the CareerAdvance® Program, a two-generation initiative for approximately 300 families in Tulsa, Okla. It links postsecondary education and career training of low-income parents to their children’s educational enrichment through early childhood education centers. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Administration for Children and Families, and the Foundation for Child Development provided support for the Oklahoma study.