Half a century ago, Latin America and the Caribbean enjoyed the highest education levels among areas of the Global South, but in recent years, other areas have been catching up. Today, students in Eastern Asian and Pacific countries complete secondary school at higher rates than students in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This relatively poor educational expansion has occurred in a region that also has the world’s highest rates of nonmarital childbearing. Although cohabitation has a long history in the region and is so common that scholars refer to Latin America as having a “dual nuptiality system” (with marriage and cohabitation as coexisting alternatives for life-long unions), cohabitation is still less stable than marriage there (like it is everywhere else). Thus, the high rates of births to cohabiting couples contribute to the high proportions of children living apart from at least one biological parent (23-60 percent of 8-15 year-olds across the eleven countries). Together with a team of researchers from the World Family Map project, I investigated how children’s living arrangements were related to their educational progress in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It isn’t very difficult to imagine why children of lone parents might be disadvantaged relative to children with two parents, in part, because two people have 48 hours in a day. With twice the total hours available to one person, time devoted to income earning and to caregiving can both potentially increase. Income and time are both good things for children, and both can make it easier for kids to succeed in school.

After that, it gets more complicated. Stability is also good for kids. So is being raised by a continuously single mother better than having a stepfather, even though he might contribute income and time? Are parents less important for children’s outcomes where extended family living is more common—that is, where other people in the household can contribute resources to children? Our work, published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues in July, took up these kinds of questions in a context where both family instability and extended family living are common.

We found that children living apart from at least one biological parent were less likely to be progressing on-time through school (they had either dropped out or fallen behind grade-for-age). This was true among children living with only their mothers, only their fathers, and a mother and stepfather, as well as those living with a father and stepmother. In other words, kids living with both biological parents were the most likely to be on track to complete secondary school. According to our research, having a stepparent didn’t compensate for the educational disadvantage experienced by kids with an absent biological parent.

Single parenthood and family instability in Latin America and the Caribbean present formidable obstacles to educational progress for children in the region.

Our study also suggested that even though kids whose biological fathers migrate to another country for a job lose their father’s time resources, they do not suffer the same educational disadvantages as children of single mothers. Financial contributions may be more reliable when remitted in the context of intact unions compared to broken unions, plus children may benefit from union stability itself—never undergoing either parental breakup or repartnering.

We also examined whether living with adults other than parents was associated with good educational outcomes for kids. After all, kids who live with stepfathers might benefit from their income and time but also suffer from the transitions that created the stepfamily, whereas kids who live with grandfathers might have more resources without those consequences. Unfortunately, other men did not seem to substitute for biological fathers for keeping children progressing on-time through school. In some countries, those living with other men (not including stepfathers) were actually more likely to fall behind or drop out. Living with other women occasionally carried a modest advantage, but nothing like the advantage associated with living with a biological mother.

Overall, our findings suggest that it is very difficult to substitute for intact families in promoting good educational outcomes. But, as the lead author of this study, I am well aware of its limitations in proving that family instability makes educational progress difficult.

For instance, if kids in East Asian countries living in stepfamilies progress better through school than kids in intact families in Latin America, then family structure is, at best, only a small part of the reason why educational expansion in Latin America has been relatively slow. Perhaps more importantly, when we show that kids not living with both parents are disadvantaged in the most recent data, we haven’t actually shown that the growth in family instability has impeded educational progress over time in the region. In further work, we plan to address this weakness by testing whether secondary completion rates have improved more slowly in areas within Latin America that have seen faster growth in family instability.

Despite these limitations, our findings suggest that single parenthood and family instability in Latin America and the Caribbean present formidable obstacles to educational progress in the region. These factors may even help explain why Asian countries with stronger marriage cultures have gone from trailing Latin America to surpassing it in secondary school completion rates.