April 17 2014

The Current State of Marriage: Bad for Kids, Bad for All of Us

Abby Schachter

The spring issue of National Affairs contains an important and troubling essay by Ron Haskins. The co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution’s article entitled Marriage, Parenthood, and Public Policy chronicles the breakdown of the traditional two-parent family and the consequent public policy challenges for improving the lives of children born into single-parent homes.

Haskins provides persuasive and clear-headed analysis from the decline of marriage, to the rise of single-parent homes and the reasons why this shift has such a negative impact on children and the broader society.

On the decline of marriage Haskins writes:

In 1970, according to that year's decennial census, 83% of women ages 30 to 34 were married. By 2010, that number had fallen to 57%.

On the rise of single-parent families:

 In 1970, 12% of children lived with a single parent at any given time; over the next 40 years, that number increased by 124%, rising to 27% of children in 2010. Over the course of their childhoods, as many as half of all American children will spend some time in a single-parent household.

The trouble with this shift from married, two-parent families to the now more common single-parent families is the effect it has on children:

Children raised by single parents are more likely to display delinquent and illegal behavior. Daughters raised by single mothers are more likely to engage in early sexual activity and become pregnant; their brothers are twice as likely to spend time in jail as their peers raised by married parents. They are less likely to finish high school or get a college degree. And they are four to five times as likely to live in poverty as are children raised by married parents.

The result of this trend is that American social mobility over the same period has been hurt.  As well, Haskins notes, “the trend affects everyone.” He explains that:

There are, of course, the immediate costs imposed on taxpayers to pay for government benefits for impoverished single mothers and their children. … More important, however, is the human capital lost. Children raised by single parents tend to perform more poorly in school, and this fact appears to be one reason why America's children are falling seriously behind students from other countries in educational achievement…. Many of the problems we associate with failures of American economic policy — especially the persistence of a high poverty rate despite the billions of dollars a year we spend on relief efforts — can also be attributed to family breakdown. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that America's social problems and its economic problems are thoroughly intertwined with the decline of marriage and the rise of single parenting.

Pete Wehner reminds us that what we have come to accept as a new normal was once in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s coinage “unimaginable.” “The historian Lawrence Stone said the scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent. It is unique. And as a civilization we seem unable, or at least unwilling, to do much of anything about it,” Wehner writes.

Haskins does discuss what has been attempted to combat these social ills, breaking them down into categories to better understand what has worked and what hasn’t. He argues that combating teen pregnancy has been somewhat successful as rates of teen pregnancy and even abortion among some young people have declined over time. When it comes to promoting marriage, helping young men become more marriageable and helping single mothers, the results are far less positive.

As someone who has written about the need for public policy and politicians to address the marriage crisis, I was dismayed to read how government policies designed to promote marriage have had very limited success. But there is an important perspective to keep in mind. Just about everyone agreed about the need to reduce teen pregnancy because there was universal understanding that it caused harm.  Such is not the case when it comes to marriage promotion. Indeed, as Haskins writes, only President George W. Bush has supported marriage promotion from the Oval Office.

President Obama is now in his second term. He is the first African-American president and he grew up in a single-parent home. He is also married. And though he’s been an out-spoken advocate for responsible fatherhood, he has done little to nothing to promote marriage. In light of Haskins’ analysis, it might be easy to argue that there’s no proven way to get single mothers to marry the biological fathers of their children. But there is little doubt that President Obama’s rhetorical skills could have had a significant impact on the cultural acceptance of single-parenting on the black community. Mr. Obama could have made greater use of his bully pulpit to praise those who marry and raise children together. First Lady Michelle Obama has spent countless speeches on the effects of single-parenting, namely that many children of single-parents are obese or have an unhealthy BMI. Unfortunately, she hasn’t publicly talked about how marriage promotes other aspects of a child’s life. She could have talked more about how her marriage to President Obama and presented this son of a single mother, who was raised by his grandparents, as a role model for men who admire the president but have not been good fathers to their children.

We can’t expect greater efforts and resources to be devoted to the crisis of marriage until Democratic leaders, and especially President Obama, are willing to speak up for marriage and level with us about the ills of single-parenting, as Ron Haskins has so ably shown.

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