Research Spotlight: The influence of becoming a parent on political participation in the United States

Having a child brings many potential joys into a new parent’s life. But this transformative experience also introduces a variety of new demands on the parent’s physical and emotional energy. These new stressors may also affect new parents’ well-being in less obvious ways that have broad societal implications. In particular, the demands of parenthood may attenuate someone’s civic engagement in the near term. We evaluate this possibility in our recent article, published in Social Science Quarterly.

Relying on data from the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, we focus specifically on new parents, defined as those with a single child under age five. The orange bars in Figure 1A show the voter turnout rate of these parents in each election. The gray bars show the turnout rate for non-parents. Parents were about twenty percentage points less likely to vote than non-parents in each election. This difference is not necessarily causal. If parenthood had no effect on participation, we would still expect non-parents to participate at a greater rate than parents because non-parents tend to be wealthier and better educated—two of the factors that best predict political participation. And thus differences in participation may be due to differences in wealth, education, and other factors that are not evenly distributed between parents and non-parents.

To prevent these factors from confounding our conclusions, we looked for non-parents in the data who had almost identical levels of wealth, education, and several other factors as the parents in the sample. Figure 1B shows the turnout rates among the parents and non-parents in this “matched” sample.  Here we see that much, but not all, of the apparent effect of parenthood disappears.  In other words, most of the descriptive difference shown in Figure 1A seems to arise for reasons other than the effect of parenthood on turnout.

We performed a similar analysis for other forms of participation such as attending meetings of civic or community groups, contacting a public official, and discussing politics. The results are shown in Figure 2. Across a wide range of participatory acts, parents are slightly less likely to participate than non-parents with similar levels of wealth, education, and other factors. Overall, our substantive results are consistent with those emerging from recent studies that rely on Western European data, which also find, for example, that becoming a parent has a small, negative effect on the likelihood of voter turnout—reducing it by a few percentage points.

Figure 1: The proportion of all respondents who report voting (Panel A) and the proportion of the matched sample who report voting (Panel B). The matched sample includes only parents and non-parents who have identical values of family income, age, gender, education level, student status, marital status, race, and employment status. Source: Current Population Survey 2010 and 2014 Voting and Registration Supplements.
Figure 2: Parents participate at lower rates than similar non-parents. The dots represent the mean difference between parents and non-parents for a given participatory act among respondents in the weighted, matched samples.The lines represent 95% confidence intervals. Source: Current Population Survey 2010 and 2014 Voting and Registration Supplements.

Dr. Robert Jackson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at FSU. You can learn more about Dr. Jackson here.

Dr. Matthew Pietryka is an Associate Professor of Political Science at FSU. You can learn more about Dr. Pietryka here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.