Childhood bereavement as a mechanism of cumulative disadvantage


Gaines, Margaret E. (2016). Childhood bereavement as a mechanism of cumulative disadvantage. 2016 Add Health Users Conference. Bethesda, MD.


This study examines how the death of a parent as a child, adolescent, or teen may create risks that undermine lifetime educational attainment and workforce attachment—two key concepts that are strongly correlated to adult well-being. The research is theoretically important because it will enhance the theoretical understanding of the links between the experience of childhood adversity and its consequences for adult lives. It is also of practical significance, as it can inform and direct policy designed to support bereaved children and families. Using the life course paradigm and data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Harris 2009) (Harris 2009), adult outcomes of parentally bereaved children will be analyzed and compared to non-bereaved children. In the normative life course pattern in the present-day U.S., the life event of parental death does not occur until adulthood. Although parental death as an adult can cause hardship, parental death in childhood is out of sequence with life events. For children, the impact of parental death is sudden and has lifelong cumulative effects. Parental death creates changes in family structure and relationships. The loss of a parent also means the loss of human capital and social capital, creating risk and vulnerability (Gertler 2004, Hagen 2010), and changing the opportunities that will be available to the bereaved child. The study of the effects of parental death on the life course of children in the United States has sociological significance because the United States is a country of high inequality and low socioeconomic mobility. The loss of a parent can further reduce or limit the important resources provided by parents to children (McLanahan and Percheski 2008). When such resources are cut short, the child’s trajectory toward adult outcomes can negatively change (McLanahan 2004). These altered trajectories put children at risk of lower educational attainment, risk of instability in the workforce, and risk of decreased adult socioeconomic status, all of which have impact upon life-long well-being. The purpose of this research is to determine if the cumulative disadvantage experienced by minority children and poor children is increased by the death of a parent.


Reference Type

Conference proceeding

Book Title

2016 Add Health Users Conference


Gaines, Margaret E.

Year Published


City of Publication

Bethesda, MD

Reference ID