If You Want to Help Children, Then Help Marriage

If You Want to Help Children, Then Help Marriage

by Dr. Jenet Jacob Erickson

If there is anything the last four decades have taught us, it is that marriage matters in the lives of children. In 1960, five percent of children were born to an unmarried mother. By 2014, that rate had increased to 41 percent and with it the reality that many children face dramatically increased risks for poverty, involvement in crime, failing in school, psychological distress, mental illness, child abuse, and suicide, when compared to children born to their married parents 

In fact, the percentage of cohabiting couples has nearly tripled since the late 1990s, with profound implications for children. Across the world, cohabiting couples with children are nearly two times more likely to break up than those who are married, a rate that remains high regardless of socioeconomic status, or the level of prevalence and social acceptance of cohabitation. That instability poses significant risks for children.

Currently, 42-45 percent of marriages are predicted to divorce. Decades of research suggest that children in these families are two and a half times more likely to experience serious social, emotional, or psychological problems than children from non-divorced families. When their parents remarry, the risks remain. Children in married stepparent families look more like children of single parents than children raised by their own, married mother and father.

For children, there is no replacement for growing up with their own married parents. No matter how hard we try to fill that hole with money, better day care, or positive role models (all of which can help), “no other institutionreliably connects two parents, and their money, talent, and time, to their children in the way that marriage does”.

As one researcher noted, “The persistent superiority of outcomes stemming from a nuclear family…can be explained, almost fully, by the fact that [it] presents the child with two parents biologically related to him or her…” Marriage does not benefit children primarily because it gives them “improved parents (more stable, financially affluent, etc., although it does do this),” but because it gives them “their own parents.”

Father Absence

One of the most obvious challenges facing children growing up in single parent families is the absence of their father. Social science evidence of the importance of fathers in the educational, emotional, and social development of children is profound. For girls, the presence of a father has profound implications for healthy reproductive decisions. One-third of girls whose fathers left home before they turned six ended up becoming pregnant as teenagers, compared to five percent of those whose fathers were present throughout their childhood.

For boys, the presence of a father has profound implications for healthy social behaviors. Boys raised in a single-parent household were more than twice as likely to be incarcerated, even after controlling for differences in parental income, education, race, and ethnicity. The reality is, children’s overall psychological wellbeing, academic achievement, risk taking behaviors, and safety are all strongly linked to being reared by biological fathers.

Can we fix this?

Any effort to increase the likelihood that children will be reared by their married mother and father in a loving home is worth it. There simply is no good replacement. This begins with an appreciation of the great divide that exists for those from the less educated compared to the highly educated. A cultural norm of healthy marriage is all but lost among those who are moderately (some college) and least educated (no high school diploma). In contrast, rates of divorce (10%) and out-of-wedlock childbearing (6%) remain low for the highly educated. Yet, it is often the more educated who bear the responsibility for establishing policies, and developing a culture that holds up the ideal of marriage that they already have the opportunity to live by.

For Americans, this means changing policies that reward single parenthood or penalize marriage. As one well-known policy analyst summarized, ending the marriage penalty associated with means-tested public welfare benefits is an important step. Further, reforming the earned-income tax credit so that “when one low-wage worker marries another, neither would experience a loss of income” would also likely help. Increasing the “child tax credit to $4,000” could also facilitate strengthening married couples who are just above the poverty scale.

Another key involves programs that would strengthen the capacity of lower-educated men to earn a living. Economic shifts in recent decades have had a profound impact on the capacity for less-educated men to find and keep good employment. Expanding vocational training and apprenticeship opportunities would likely do much to “improve the economic prospects of less-educated men, thus making them more attractive marriage partners.” 

Across the world, political, cultural, and religious efforts to increase the likelihood that children are reared by their married biological parents are likely to have significant dividends for communities and nations. In the end, few things matter more than strengthening the health, stability, and happiness of the homes our children are being raised in. Indeed, that would make all the difference.

Dr. Jenet Jacob Erickson is an An Affiliated Scholar at the Wheatley Institution and former assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. She also serves on the UFI Governing Board. Dr. Erickson’s research specializing in maternal and child wellbeing has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, Slate Magazine, and the Today Show. She has authored more than 20 scientific articles and book chapters and presented at national and international conferences. She is currently a regular columnist on family issues, while she and her husband Michael enjoy their family life journey with two young children.

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