NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Birth Parents More Vigilant About Children's Health

September 22, 2000

Roughly half of all children in the United States grow up with at least one of their birth parents absent. Consequently, many of these children live in households with a step-parent. A recent study found that when it comes to actions related to a child's health and safety, birth mothers demonstrate greater concern or vigilance than stepmothers.

Researchers used responses from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey conducted by the Census Bureau to determine that, for instance:

  • A child living with a stepmother is about 8 percent less likely to have visited a doctor within the last year than a child living with a stepmother.
  • The child is 15 percent to 20 percent less likely to have an identified health care provider for sick or usual medical care.
  • And a child is about 20 percent less likely to wear a safety belt in the car.

Two conditions mitigate against these negative health indicators for children living with stepmothers.

If the absent birth mother has regular contact with the child, the indicators are not significantly different from children who live with their birth mothers.

And if the stepmother has children of her own, the likelihood of having a place for sick care and usual medical care is 12 percent to 14 percent greater compared to stepmothers with no biological children of their own present -- close to that of children living their birth mothers. However, the child is still less likely to have seen a dentist or physician in the past year.

A similar, though smaller, "protective" function was found in homes in which a child lived with a stepfather.

Source: Anne Case and Christina Paxson, "Mothers and Others: Who Invests in Children's Health?" Working Paper No. w7691, May 2000, National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Mass. 02138, (617) 868-3900.

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