Does parents' union instability disrupt intergenerational advantage?: an analysis of sub-Saharan Africa

Demography, 57:2, 445–473 (2020)
Open Access


The long arm of childhood, with its wide-ranging influence on individuals’ life chances, highlights the importance of understanding the determinants of health in early life. Research has established that parents’ education is a major determinant of childhood health, but children across the globe increasingly experience their parents’ divorce and subsequent remarriage, raising questions of whether union instability alters these intergenerational processes. Does divorce and remarriage interfere with parents’ education benefiting their young children’s health? I explore this question in sub-Saharan Africa, a world region where parents’ education plays a major role in protecting children against severe health risks, and where young children commonly experience parental divorce and remarriage. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa features distinct family lineage systems, affording an opportunity to explore this question in both majority matrilineal and patrilineal contexts. Analyses of Demographic and Health Survey data on 271,292 children in 30 sub-Saharan African countries offer no evidence that the high levels of union instability in the region will weaken the health benefits of parents’ education for future generations. Following divorce, children benefit from their biological parents’ education to the same degree as children with married parents—a finding that is consistent across lineage contexts. Moreover, stepfathers’ education corresponds with pronounced health benefits for their coresident stepchildren, particularly in patrilineal regions where these children benefit less dramatically from their mothers’ education. Together, the study results offer a renewed sense of the importance of parents’—including stepfathers’—education for early childhood health across diverse family structures.

Das Max-Planck-Institut für demografische Forschung (MPIDR) in Rostock ist eines der international führenden Zentren für Bevölkerungswissenschaft. Es gehört zur Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, einer der weltweit renommiertesten Forschungsgemeinschaften.