It is time to recognize that there is another form of inequality in the circumstances of growing up and getting educated: It is whether a child grows up with two parents in the home, or one.
- “The Family: America’s Smallest School”, Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley
It is often said that society should not punish children for the mistakes of their parents, yet that is exactly what we do by our unwillingness to address honestly the abandonment of children by their parents. It is time to face facts.
The Family Portrait is Torn
In the United States today, too many children are left behind – not by government, but by those who should care for them. In 2003-04, 44 percent of births to women under 30 – about one million babies – were to unmarried women. Among African-Americans, over three-quarters of births were to single mothers.1 (Lest one pin all the blame on the mother, note that the most significant factors predicting whether an unwed mother will marry the father are the father’s supportiveness of the mother and his positive attitude toward marriage.2) Moreover, over 30 percent of children are being raised in single-parent families; among African-Americans, only 35 percent of children are being raised in two-parent homes. Most disturbing, the figures are getting worse for children across all ethnic groups. 3
The Single-Parent Family Movie: Some Scenes May Be Disturbing
The portrait of the fractured family is one thing, but when put in motion, the grim consequences of unmarried motherhood and fatherless families are made clear.
- On average, children with married parents have higher grade point averages and test higher than those in other family structures, the lowest being among children with divorced parents.4
- High school graduation rates for children from two-parent families reach 90 percent, while for children from never-married-mother families only 69 percent graduate.5
- Children in divorced families are nearly twice as likely to be expelled from school than those in married families, and children in single-parent, never-married families are over four times likely to be expelled.6
- Rates of incarceration among those raised by one parent only are twice as high as for those raised in intact married-parent families.7
- Both substance abuse and early sexual activity are associated with a single parent upbringing, and women from single-mother families have about twice the chance of having a child out of marriage by age 20 than women from two-parent families.8
- Compared to adults raised in two-parent families, those raised in single-parent families earned, on average, $5,015 less per year than their peers.9
Clearly, children raised in two-parent families tend to exhibit behavior that better prepares them to be positive contributors to society, and this is borne out by comparisons of adults based on family structure.
Some will take issue with the notion that family composition significantly influences academic and behavioral changes. They will point to exceptions, and most everyone knows someone who defies the trends. But the data shows that these success stories are indeed exceptions and those who have defied the odds are likely exceptional individuals raised by an exceptional parent. Unfortunately, this is a relatively rare circumstance, and to deny it is to deny years of empirical data and deliberate research.
Others will assert that it is not family structure, but other factors – family income and parental education, for example – that exert the most influence. It is true that researchers have not sufficiently isolated all the variables to say definitively that single-parent families result in less successful children. Nevertheless, this failure to prove causation does not mean the cause does not exist, only that it has not been proven.10 Yet when looked at holistically, it is impossible to deny a strong correlation between family structure and children’s well-being, and difficult to conclude anything other than that children raised in two-parent married families fare better than children raised in other circumstances.
Whatever their relationship, a variety of negative factors are associated with single-parent families. For example, single parents tend to be less educated and to have fewer financial resources than married parents. In fact, among women under 30 with less than a high school diploma, more than 60 percent of births were outside marriage.11 Not surprisingly, more than two-thirds of children in single-parent families were living in poverty – a rate five and one-half times greater than for children being raised by their married parents.12 For children in a single-parent family, these circumstances frequently converge and form a dangerous intersection. While reading to preschool-aged children has been shown to lead to higher reading achievement and social development, a less educated parent is less likely to read to a child, as is a less wealthy parent, as is a single parent.13
A Model for Change
Out-of-marriage births, father absence, and divorce are personal choices and legal, but detrimental to a child’s well-being and the nation’s general welfare. How do we reverse the trend? One way is through a campaign to shift societal norms, an effort with which the nation has had recent success.
In 1964, 50 percent of American men and 35 percent of American women smoked. That same year, the Surgeon General reported on smoking’s harmful effects. Slowly, smoking became more widely acknowledged as a health hazard, first to smokers themselves, then to others. By 1985, former Health, Education, and Welfare secretary Joseph Califano called it not just “slow motion suicide,” but “slow motion murder.” California’s Department of Health Services sought to “denormalize” smoking such that it became “an abnormal practice.” By 2003, smoking was “considered a deviant behavior.”14
It may be neither desirable nor necessary to conduct a campaign stigmatizing single mothers and absent fathers as deviants. It may be more effective, rather, to promote marriage and the idea that submission of the self to the responsibilities of raising one’s children into a better life is among the highest and most noble of callings. This will take work, but it is no more impossible than the societal mobilization that has so reduced smoking and its deadly consequences. Moreover, a failure to even attempt to address family structure as it pertains to child well-being calls into question the values of a society that so often claims to place before virtually all else the interests of children. Demanding ever more money for schools and universal preschool may make some feel good, but it is misplaced, because while another generation is being born into fractured or never-were families, and another generation of kids will be left to cope with a social disease we are unwilling to cure.
1 Barton, Paul E. and Coley, Richard J. “The Family: America’s Smallest School.” Educational Testing Service. January 2007.
2 Fagan, Patrick F. and Johnson, Kirk A. “The Map of the Family.” Heritage Foundation.
3 Barton and Coley.
4 Fagan and Johnson.
5Sigle-Ruston, Wendy and McLanahan, Sara. “Father Absence and Child Well-being: A Critical Review.” October 2002.
6 Fagan and Johnson.
8 Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan.
11 Barton and Coley.
12 Fagan and Johnson.
13 Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan.
14 Bayer, Ronald and Stuber, Jennifer. “Tobacco Control, Stigma, and Public Health: Rethinking the Relations.” American Journal of Public Health. 2006; 96:28-31.