Family formation and poverty

By Glenn T. Stanton | March 30, 2017

Poverty carries significant and detrimental ramifications for women and children. Physical and emotional health, educational success, safe and desirable living conditions, optimism regarding the future, and the provision of basic resources are all impacted by poverty – or the lack thereof. That being the case, it is essential that all who care about the social well-being and dignity of women and children understand the depth and breadth of this connection.

To that end, the following is a brief overview of the history and academic findings on the connection between marital stability and the elevation out of and protection from poverty.

The contemporary story starts in 1965.

I. The Moynihan Report

This widely publicized government report was effectively the first shot fired in the modern culture war over the family. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the assistant secretary of labour under the Lyndon Johnson administration, warned that the gains anticipated by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might not be fully realized if considerable attention was not paid to another great challenge in the African-American community: the crumbling of its families. The “Moynihan Report,” as it came to be known, explained in great detail the nature of this problem, which Moynihan described as the Johnson administration’s “case for national action.”

On the first page of his report, Moynihan warned:

The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure. The evidence – not final, but powerfully persuasive – is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. . . . So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.

This was because:

[At] the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of weakness of the Negro community at the present time.1

Both Moynihan and President Johnson were excoriated because the report was seen as blaming the plight of African Americans on their difficulty in holding their families together. Writing to a friend months after the report’s release, Moynihan lamented, “If my head were sticking on a pike at the South West Gate to the White House grounds the impression [of disdain toward me] would hardly be greater.”2

Of course, over the subsequent decades the prescience of Moynihan’s report has, unfortunately, been borne out.

II. The feminization of poverty

Professor Diana Pearce, director of the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington, coined the term “the feminization of poverty” in 1978, warning in the opening line of her paper, “Poverty is rapidly becoming a female problem.”

While women were enjoying increased independence and empowerment in society, Pearce explained that “for many the price of that independence has been their pauperization and dependence on welfare.”3

She pointed out that the number of female-headed homes had increased nearly 40 per cent in a single generation at the time of her writing and “at the same time, the economic well-being of this growing group has eroded.” She noted this happened just when “other trends would suggest potential for improving women’s status” such as increased labour-force participation, mandates for affirmative action, and increasing employment of women with better educational opportunities.

Pearce went on to suggest that stronger welfare policies and public transfers to working single mothers were the answers to this widespread problem. However, it is difficult to overlook the fact that the poverty crisis among women was overwhelmingly the result of changing sexual and social ethics and practices. In other words, what occurred was a sexual revolution that gave men a pass on facing up to their procreative responsibilities.

III. Letting men off the hook

Nobel Prize winning economist George Akerlof explained this same point in the mid-1990s, positing that a major player in the dramatic increase in female-headed homes, and their accompanying impoverishment, was “the declining practice of ‘shotgun marriage.’” Prior to the early 1970s, if an unmarried woman became pregnant, it was expected that the responsible male would marry her. What’s more, in the majority of instances, marriage did indeed follow an unexpected and illegitimate pregnancy.

The introduction of oral contraception changed that. Women now seemingly had the ability to take control of their own fertility, rather than depending on the self-control or prophylactic use of their male partners. When a woman did find herself pregnant, the baby’s father was able to disavow any responsibility – not only because the woman in question had access to the pill, but also because there was now an alternative “solution” in place through legalized abortion. As a result, marriage was no longer a foregone conclusion when a couple was faced with an unexpected pregnancy – and, more often than not, the woman and her child eventually declined into poverty. Sadly, Akerlof’s observations have proven all too accurate.

In terms of specific numbers, Akerlof explained that if the rate of marriages occurring in the 1960s that were prompted by unexpected pregnancies had remained consistent into the 1980s, the incidence of unmarried births would have risen during that time by only 25 per cent, rather than the actual 75 per cent increase that took place. Regarding the black population, the rise would have been 40 per cent, as opposed to the 60 per cent increase that occurred.4 The “feminization of poverty” could therefore have been a mere fraction of what it ultimately became. Marriage, then, would seem to be the missing element in a culture that is seeing growing numbers of women and children – not to mention subsequent generations – enduring poverty and its accompanying hardships.

It can be concluded that sexual ethics are not just private issues germane only to the individual, but are consequential for families, communities and whole societies.

IV. Gary Becker: A Treatise on the Family

Gary Becker, a celebrated economist and 1992 Nobel Laureate, published a pioneering book in 1981 titled A Treatise on the Family. With mathematical sophistication and detail, Becker demonstrated how marriage significantly improves the lives of families and their members across distinct cultures by creating and supporting a specialized division of labour between wife and husband, mother and father. This enduring specialization raises the educational opportunities, material well-being, social mobility and overall satisfaction of both partners. Of course, these benefits transfer in significant ways to the lives of their children and grandchildren, an outcome that is arguably more meaningful and lasting than any other factor.

This specialized division of labour produces a unique economy of scale between husband and wife and a greater protection against the risks and downturns in material resources that life occasionally brings. According to Becker:

Although the sharp sexual division of labour in all societies between the market and household sectors is partly due to the gains from specialized investments, it is also partly due to the intrinsic differences between the sexes. . . .

I suggest that men and women have intrinsically different comparative advantages not only in the production of children, but also in their contribution to child care and possibly to other activities. Such intrinsic differences in productivity determine the direction of the sexual division by tasks and hence sexual differences in the accumulation of specific human capital that reinforces the intrinsic differences.5

And of course, children benefit uniquely from increased creative efficiency of married homes. Becker’s treatise received criticism from some quarters because of its foundation upon the general division of labour in sex-typed ways: wives handling the majority of domestic work and home management while husbands carry most of the family’s market-labour work. This distinction might seem to make Becker’s treatise less true today given a greater egalitarianism of the sexes in the intervening years, but recent research shows this is not necessarily the case.6

These three developments – 1) The Moynihan Report, 2) the recognition of the growing feminization of poverty and the impact of developments in contraception, and 3) the understanding of the unique specialization of work and resources created by husband and wife – laid an early foundation for understanding the role that family formation plays in the increase and decrease in poverty for mothers and their children.

The following works represent the most significant quantifications of the connection between family structure and poverty, and they approach the topic from various political and ideological perspectives.

V. The Progressive Policy Institute and the first Clinton campaign

The Progressive Policy Institute, which started as a think tank of sorts for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, distributed some remarkably compelling data showing how powerful family formation and cohesiveness are in driving down poverty.

In their white paper for the Institute, Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston, who became President Clinton’s domestic policy advisor, explained in crisp language:

It is no exaggeration to say that a stable, two-parent family is an American child’s best protection against poverty.7

Additionally, Galston explained that never living in poverty in the U.S. has three primary requirements:

  1. Finish high school
  2. Marry before having children
  3. Marry after the age of 20

Only eight per cent of people who fulfill these three criteria are poor, while 79 per cent of those who fail to do so will be impoverished.8

Isabel Sawhill, Galston’s celebrated colleague at the Brookings Institution and a tireless advocate for the well-being of children, made this bold statement:

The proliferation of single-parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970s.9

VI. The Atlantic’s “Dan Quayle Was Right”

Murphy Brown, the title character played by Candice Bergen in the popular 1990s sitcom, was an investigative journalist and anchor for a fictional news show. Brown, a powerful and well-heeled professional, determines that she can indeed “have it all” and decides to become a single mother. Vice-President Dan Quayle used Murphy Brown as an illustration in a now infamous speech, in which he decried the rise of intentional single motherhood as America’s growing “poverty of values.” His remark had the effect of throwing a barrel of gasoline upon the already healthy flames that were the culture war on the family. As for Vice-President Quayle, he was widely derided and dismissed for those remarks.

The following year Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a centre-left Democrat journalist, wrote an equally explosive essay for The Atlantic explaining in precise detail why “Dan Quayle Was Right,” as her piece was titled. This April 1993 cover story was responsible for making that edition the runaway bestselling issue in the magazine’s distinguished 158-year history.

Whitehead explained:

Children in single-parent families are six times as likely to be poor. They are also likely to stay poor longer. Twenty-two per cent of children in one-parent families will experience poverty during childhood for seven years or more, as compared with only two per cent of children in two-parent families.

She continued:

Single-mother families are vulnerable not just to poverty, but to a particularly debilitating form of poverty: welfare dependency. . . . Most social scientists now agree that single motherhood is an important and growing cause of poverty.10

VII. Princeton’s Sara McLanahan

Professor Sara McLanahan, a central figure among leading family sociologists, started her academic career as an adherent to the school of thought claiming that single-parent families are just another form of family. But in her now decades-long work at Princeton University investigating how family form affects child well-being, she’s come to conclude the opposite: there are many serious downsides for children being raised in non-marital homes.

A. Growing up with a Single Parent

McLanahan, one of the most published and respected scholars in her field, provided an informed examination of the outcomes for children in single-parent families in her 1994 work, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. As McLanahan explained, there is not much in single-parenthood that helps a child, particularly regarding protection from poverty:

In 1992, approximately 45 per cent of families with children headed by single mothers were living below the poverty line, as compared with 8.4 per cent of families with two parents.11

B. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this $17 million, multi-decade study initiated primarily by McLanahan. The study follows a cohort of nearly 5,000 U.S. children born from 1998 to 2000, 75 per cent of whom come from unmarried homes. It originates from the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton and the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University and involves eight principal investigators.

Since 1998, the study continues to produce a nearly innumerable collection of working papers, published journal articles, books, and book chapters. This collective work adds untold insights to our understanding of how children are disadvantaged in their development by being born into and raised in fragile families headed by unmarried mothers, whether single or cohabitating.

Perhaps the single best summary of the findings of the Fragile Families study are collected in the journal, The Future of Children, in its fall 2010 edition.

VIII. Edin and Kefalas: Promises I Can Keep

Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas made tremendous contributions to the study of marital status and poverty in their 2005 book, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. Their work is an ethnographical look at 162 poor mothers from eight struggling neighbourhoods in the Philadelphia and Camden areas. Through personal stories, they document the drastic and negative impact of unmarried childbearing on the ability of single mothers to rise above their current (and often dire) economic status.

Edin and Kefalas document, as did William Julius Williams in his pioneering book, The Truly Disadvantaged, how many of these mothers strongly desire to marry. However, their prospects of finding marriageable men in their communities are nearly non-existent, as the transfer of reliable manufacturing jobs overseas makes these men unreliable providers. Edin and Kefalas write:

Poor young women who put motherhood before marriage do not generally do so because they reject the institution of marriage itself, but because good, decent, trustworthy men are in short supply.12

IX. The disappearing middle class and diverging destinies

While previous work on family form and child poverty had been focused on the ways in which family fragility drives important health and development outcomes for women and children, the discussion started to take a new and important turn in the early 2000s.

It began to be posited that family fragmentation is associated not only with persistent poverty, but also with an emerging class divide. Scholars started to point out how it was no longer only – or even primarily – race, employment or education that create class divide, but marriage itself.

Following are the primary contributors to this understanding that continues to be explored and substantiated today.

A. Jonathan Rauch: The Widening Marriage Gap

In 2001 Jonathan Rauch, a noted journalist with the National Journal, published a brief and game-changing essay that served as one of the first wake-up calls regarding the connection between marital status and class divide. Rauch put it this way:

[P]overty correlates more strongly with a family’s marital status than with its race. According to Census Bureau data, a two-parent black household is more likely to be poor than is a two-parent white household, but both are far less likely to be poor than is a mother-only household of either race. In other words, if you are a baby about to be born, your best odds are to choose married black parents over unmarried white ones.

Rauch concludes that as America is “splitting into two increasingly divergent and self-perpetuating streams” we are finally coming to understand “marriage as the dividing line.”13

B. Robert Lerman: Urban Institute

In terms of unprecedented insights into the relationship between family formation and poverty, perhaps second only to McLanahan’s longitudinal, multi-dimensional Fragile Families study is a series of white papers coming from the Urban Institute. Produced by American University’s Robert Lerman, an economist concentrating on low-income populations, these four papers address the question of whether the resurgence of marriage among low-income families of various races and ethnicities could make a difference in elevating their life prospects. His findings are so singular and perceptive that a brief summary of each is warranted.

1. Lerman’s first white paper is a review of the literature up to July 2002. He shows that, even while there’s an equal number of income-earning and domestically-contributing adults in the home, “married couples still show a substantial economic advantage” compared to their cohabiting peers. He elaborates:

Married couples have incomes nearly four times their basic needs, a ratio that is 30-70 per cent higher than what cohabiting couples experience and 63-113 per cent higher than what single parents [with another live-in adult, such as a sibling, friend or mother] experience.

This is true even though married women generally work fewer hours in the market-economy than cohabiting women and married men work more hours, stay employed longer and get promoted at higher rates than their comparable cohabiting peers.

A key question for Lerman is the one Rauch addressed – namely, whether these marriage premiums for a family’s financial stability extend to low-income families. Lerman reports:

The results reveal that marriage significantly and substantially reduces the likelihood of poverty, holding constant for family background, race and ethnicity, age, education . . . Having ever been married reduces poverty by one-third, while currently being married reduces poverty by two-thirds.14

2. Lerman’s second paper examines, among many issues, the role “shotgun” marriages play in family poverty. As George Akerlof (see number III above) explains, marriages prompted by unplanned pregnancies were common until 1970 but are nearly absent today.

Comparing mothers and their children from “shotgun” marriages and those who remained single, Lerman found that “the women entering shotgun marriages experienced a 38 per cent higher level of living standards and a 20 per cent lower variability of living standards [i.e., significant fluctuations in standard of living due to financial instability].”

He adds:

The increases in living standards associated with early marriage were highly positive and significant for all races among women who had a premarital pregnancy leading to a birth. . . . Even controlling for . . . academic ability, school completion, family background, race, age at pregnancy, women who are married between pregnancy and the birth of their first child averaged a 30 per cent higher income-to-needs ratio and a 15 per cent lower degree of [fluctuating financial security].

Such marriages were also associated with reducing by half the number of years the mothers, fathers and children spent in poverty compared with those who did not marry before the birth of their first child. This difference was even greater – and by substantial margins – for black mothers and those with low educational test scores.

Lerman concluded these findings by stating:

Even among the mothers with the least qualifications and highest risk of poverty, marriage effects are consistently large and statistically significant.15

Specifically, for those women entering marriage between the conception and birth of their first child, their standard of living is raised by:

  • 65 per cent over a single mother with no other live-in adult
  • 50 per cent over a single mother living with a non-romantic adult
  • 20 per cent over a single mother living with a man

3. In his third paper, Lerman addresses the various concomitant hardships for children relative to family form. He again finds that it’s the state of being married, rather than the presence of two potential wage-earners, that makes the difference:

Poverty rates of cohabitating couples are double those of [before-first-conception] married parents; non-cohabiting single parents with at least a second adult had poverty rates three times as high as among married parents. The apparent gains from marriage are particularly high among black households.

In terms of the day-to-day financial responsibilities facing most families, the differences are still stark. Even among households with similar incomes and comparable demographic and educational characteristics, the following statistics demonstrate that, over the past year, non-married households have experienced greater difficulty meeting their basic living expenses and bills.

Percentage unable to meet utilities, food and rent sometime in past year

Married                                                15%

Cohabiting                                          30%

Single with other adult                  33%

Single with no other adult            36%

These differences existed not only for families with similar socio-economic characteristics but, even more specifically, for those with the same income-to-needs ratios.16

4. Similarly, Lerman’s fourth paper delves deeper into this question of how family form impacts the material hardships for mothers and children, such as missed meals, rent, and utility payments due to financial struggles. He found that the “marriage impacts were quite large, generally higher than the effects of education,” with the impacts being highest among black families.17

C. Sara McLanahan: Diverging Destinies

This term was coined by Sara McLanahan in a 2004 paper published in the journal Demography. In this piece, McLanahan takes the”feminization of poverty” observation further. She argues that the changes observed for women in society today have brought both positive and negative consequences for women and their children. Among these social developments are:

  1. The coming of “second wave” feminism
  2. Developments in birth control technologies
  3. Changes in labour market participation
  4. Changes in welfare policies

McLanahan contends that well-educated, married women are generally benefitting from these developments, while less-educated, unmarried women are not. And as the marriage rates of the former group are holding steady or even rising slightly, those of the latter group have been declining starkly for some time. Consequently, for both sets of women we are seeing “diverging destinies.” In other words, married and well-educated women are on an increasingly positive track with regard to economic well-being, while their counterparts are experiencing greater and greater degrees of persistent poverty.

McLanahan warns:

Although some analysts have argued that single motherhood is an indicator of women’s greater economic independence and parity with men, the rejection of this status by college-educated women suggests otherwise.

She concludes her article thus:

To sum up, the demographic changes associated with increases in children’s resources – mothers’ age and employment and fathers’ involvement – are happening the fastest among children in the top socio-economic strata, whereas the changes associated with decreases in resources – single motherhood, [cohabitation] and divorce – are happening the fastest among children in the bottom strata. These trends are leading to greater disparities in children’s resources, measured as parents’ time and money.18

D. Kay Hymowitz: Marriage and Caste in America

Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute called attention to this idea of a diverging America between married and not-married individuals in her 2006 book, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age. Hymowitz explains that “around 1980 the family forming habits of college grads and uneducated women went their separate ways.”

From the 1960s to the ‘80s and ‘90s, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among women with college degrees increased by only four per cent. Meanwhile, among those women either without a high school diploma or with a diploma and perhaps some higher education but not a degree, that same figure rose 15 and 10 per cent, respectively. Hymowitz shows how stark this divergence is:

Virtually all – 92 per cent – children whose families make over $75,000 a year are living with both married parents. On the other end of the income scale, the situation is reversed: only about 20 per cent of kids in families earning under $15,000 live with both parents.19

E. The State of Our Unions: When Marriage Disappears – The New Middle America

The annual State of Our Unions report issued by the National Marriage Project has made an essential contribution to family demographic studies since the late 1990s. The Project’s 2010 report centred on this class divide being created by changes in marriage trends:

Although marriage is still held in high regard across social classes in America, in recent years, moderately educated Americans have become less likely to form stable, high-quality marriages, while college-educated Americans (who make up 30 per cent of the adult population) have become more likely to do so. . . .

Overall then, the family lives of today's moderately educated Americans increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting and troubled children.

The report explains that this growing “marriage gap” means that “more affluent Americans are now doubly privileged in comparison to their moderately educated fellow citizens – by their superior economic resources and by their stable family lives.”20

F. Andrew Cherlin: The Marriage-Go-Round

Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University is a leading sociologist examining the history and changes in marriage in America from the colonial days to the present. His 2009 book, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today continues this work, looking at the American experience as it relates to patterns of marriage over the years. He dedicates one chapter to addressing the growing class divide between married and non-married individuals. Through his own research and findings, Cherlin concurs with the well-established conclusion that marriage is a key driver of the economic well-being of women and children.

Cherlin has discovered that the majority of women who have become single mothers in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties were in cohabiting relationships when they became mothers. Cherlin explains:

[This rate of single motherhood] has doubled since 1965 for women with low to moderate levels of education. But it hardly changed among the well-educated: no change for well-educated white women since 1965 and no change since 1980 for well-educated African-American women. What we are seeing is two different ways of shooting the rapids of the transition to adulthood . . .

Women who have their first child after marriage, by educational status

High school drop-out     30-40%

High school only               60%

College educated             90%

Marital stability and longevity also differs significantly depending on educational status.

Likelihood of divorce/separation before 5th anniversary by educational status

High school drop-out     34%

High school only               23%

College educated             13%

Like Edin and Kefalas, Cherlin offers one key reason why unmarried child-bearing is much more prevalent among poor and under-educated women:

I don’t think the poor have a greater absolute desire to have children than the affluent, but relative to the other major rewards adult life holds – meaningful and well-paying jobs, a fulfilling and long-lasting marriage – raising children is the reward they know they can get. So it becomes the reward that they are unwilling to postpone.21

In other words, child-bearing becomes the “promise to themselves they can keep,” to borrow from the Edin-Kefalas title. Clearly, marital and educational statuses combine to determine the social mobility or stagnation for women and children in powerfully significant ways.

G. Charles Murray: Coming Apart

Another significant contribution to the marriage divide is Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which examines the shrinking middle class by looking exclusively at “white America.” In terms of the factors driving this economic shift, Murray examines industriousness, personal virtue and religiosity, but he begins with marriage.

Murray explains that in 1960, the marital divide between “the two sides of the track” was only 10 per cent – a marital rate of 94 and 84 per cent between the upper and lower classes in white America. Those numbers diverged to an 11 per cent difference by 1978, and expanded to a 35 per cent difference by 2010.

Like Cherlin, Murray demonstrates how educational status divides the married from the “not-marrieds.” Women with bachelor, graduate and post-graduate degrees are indistinguishable; fewer than five per cent of them will have a baby outside of marriage. For those women who did not complete high school, more than 60 per cent of them will.

Murray also explains, again like Cherlin, that the increase in unmarried child-bearing is almost always taking place in cohabiting situations, about which he comments, “If you are interested in the welfare of children, knowing that the child was born to a cohabiting woman instead of a lone unmarried woman should have little effect on your appraisal of the child’s chances in life.” This is because the research consistently shows that it’s not the number of parents in the home that benefits children, but the nature of the relationship between them.

Marital rates themselves have been plummeting in blue-collar America while they’ve held steady and even increased slightly across white-collar America. Unfortunately, the steep decline among blue-collar America shows no sign of slowing.

Referring to his own findings as well as the larger body of literature, Murray concludes:

I know of no other set of important findings that are as broadly accepted by social scientists who follow the technical literature, liberal as well as conservative, and yet are so resolutely ignored by network news programs, editorial writers for the major newspapers and politicians of both major political parties.22

H. Lerman and Wilcox: For Richer, for Poorer

W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project can be counted along with Sawhill, McLanahan and Lerman as one of the most learned and prolific contributors to the body of knowledge examining how family form impacts mother and child well-being. Arguably, these four make up the “centre of the room” in this area of research as measured by length of time studying the issue and number of major contributions to its body.

Wilcox partnered with Lerman to offer some important new findings to this field of study in a major 2014 report from the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. It deserves some specific attention because of the uniqueness of the topics examined and how Wilcox and Lerman addressed them. They report:

  • Median family incomes would be at least 44 per cent higher today in the U.S. if the 1980 level of married parenthood had been maintained.
  • At least 32 per cent of the widening family-income inequality among families with children since 1979, as well as the 37 per cent decline in male employment rates, can be linked directly to the decreasing number of adults forming and maintaining enduring marriages.
  • Adjusting for family size, family income is 73 per cent higher for married women compared to that of their unmarried peers.
  • Young men and women who grew up in intact families benefit from a substantial annual “intact-family premium” ranging from $4,700 to $6,500 compared to their peers from single-parent families, with all other factors being equal.
  • Men who are married benefit from an average annual “marriage premium” of at least $15,900 per year compared to their unmarried peers.
  • Combining these two measures, Lerman and Wilcox find that men and women who grow up with married parents and then go on to marry enjoy a “marriage premium” of at least $42,000 annually over their unmarried peers from single parent homes.

This “marriage premium” is even more substantial for the most disadvantaged:

The advantages of growing up in an intact family and being married extend across the population. They apply as much to blacks and Hispanics as they do to whites. For instance, black men enjoy a marriage premium of at least $12,500 in their individual income compared to their single peers. The advantages also apply, for the most part, to men and women who are less educated. For instance, men with a high-school degree or less enjoy a marriage premium of at least $17,000 compared to their single peers.23

All things being equal, cohabiting men and women have incomes closer to their truly single peers than to their married peers.

I. World Family Map

The World Family Map is a major new research initiative by a diverse group of international scholars, representing the first effort to look at family formation and well-being measures on a global scale. Its 2014 report focused on how family formation changes are impacting key measures of child well-being outcomes such as the prevalence of certain physical ailments, stunted growth and child mortality.

These scholars found that in the developing world:

  • Child mortality was 20-34 per cent greater in unstable families in most developing nations.
  • Increases in diarrhea among children from unstable homes increased about seven per cent in Central and South America and Caribbean nations, while it is 16 per cent more likely in Africa generally and 35 per cent greater in Asian countries generally. Children from widowed homes did not show any such disadvantage in any region, largely because they retain the help and use of resources of both extended families.
  • Stunted growth of children with mothers from broken unions is 12 per cent more likely in Central and South America and the Caribbean, 18 per cent more likely in Africa, and 52 per cent more likely in Asia.24

J. Robert Putnam: Our Kids

Robert Putnam, a celebrated Harvard professor of public policy, has authored a book titled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, in which he studies the barriers that presently exist between our children and their potential realization of the American dream. This work is similar to Murray’s book – but while Murray zeroes in on white America, Putnam reports across races and ethnicities.

Like Murray, Putnam begins with marriage and the family as a major factor separating those children who are likely to achieve various measures of success and those who are not. He explains the number of reproductive and relational issues that he sees driving this divide:

Mother’s age at birth: High school educated mothers typically have their first child about ten years earlier than their college educated peers. While high school graduates are more likely to begin bearing children in their late teens or early twenties, college graduates, on average, wait until their late twenties or early thirties.

Unintended births: High school educated women don’t aspire to have more babies than college educated women, but they do tend to initiate sex earlier and have, as one of Putnam’s interviewees explained it, “planned and kind of not planned” pregnancies. And as Putnam reiterates, “The class-linked differences are widening.”

Non-marital births: As has been well established, the incidents of non-marital births declines sharply as a woman’s educational years increase.

While these rates are about 80 per cent for high school educated black women and have remained at this level for the last twenty years, the rates of unmarried childbirth has quadrupled in this same period for whites, rising to about 50 per cent.

For college graduates, the proportion of non-marital births has actually fallen by a third over the last twenty years to about 25 per cent, and the percentage for white college graduates has declined from three to two per cent. This means, as Putnam puts it, that the “racial gap within classes has narrowed, while the class gap within races has widened.”

Divorce: While the divorce rate in America more than doubled in the 1960s and 1970s, then levelled off in the mid-1980s, it’s a different story relative to educational status. Putnam explains:

By 2000 the ratio of divorced to married people was nearly twice as great among high-school-educated Americans (roughly 24 per 100) as among college graduates (14 per 100), and by 2008-2010 the gap had grown further (roughly 28 per 100 to 14 per 100).

Cohabitation: While two-thirds of all marriages today follow some history of cohabitation by one or both partners – cohabitation, in fact, is the Western world’s fastest growing family form – here the education divide manifests itself starkly as well. The number of high school educated women who have ever cohabited has doubled since 1987 from about 35 per cent to 70 per cent. Among college educated women, it rose as well – but more modestly, from 31 to 47 per cent.

When pregnancy occurs in cohabiting relationships, it is substantially more common among the high school educated and much less likely to lead to marriage as it is among college educated women.

Multi-partner fertility: This term has been developed by demographers over the last 20 years to describe a complex dynamic among some women where they have babies from and often maintain relationships with a number of different men. It applies almost exclusively to women who have not finished high school.

As mentioned earlier, it is often an economic strategy by some women to be able to have the babies they want even while being unable to enter into a relationship with a reliably wage-earning and supportive man. They find it more successful to seek some modicum of support from a number of men for a number of children, rather than relying on one man for a number of children. As such, Putnam explains:

Compared to college graduates, high-school-educated men are four times more likely to father children with whom they do not live, and only half as likely to visit those children.25

X. Conclusion

Today, many unfortunately hold that the kinds of families adults form in which to raise children should be no one else’s business, as it doesn’t affect anyone outside that particular home. It is, in others words, a personal matter. However, for as long as this topic has been studied, the findings reached have been precisely the opposite. They are unequivocal in demonstrating that children, families, communities and entire societies are impacted by family structure.

Perhaps the most significant determinant of whether a man, woman or child will live part or all of their lives in poverty is the form of family in which they grow up and eventually go on to establish – or in some cases fail to establish – in their adulthood.

It is undeniable, then, that advocating and working for healthy, enduring families is a central part of loving and caring for one’s neighbour.

And clearly, it is not simply politics, moralism or personal values that drive this connection. It is decades of careful research from scholars across the political and ideological spectrum.

It is far past time to start listening to them.

This article was edited from an original version © 2015 Focus on the Family.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.

  • 1. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Office of Policy Management and Research, United States Department of Labor, March 1965, p. 3. A valuable book on the heritage and consequences of the Moynihan Report is James T. Paterson’s Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama, (Basic Books, 2010).
  • 2. Nicholas Lemann, “Postscript: Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2003.
  • 3. Diana Pearce, “The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work and Welfare,” The Urban and Social Change Review, 11 (1978) 28-38.
  • 4. George Akerlof, Janet L. Yellen and Michael L. Katz, “An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 111 (1996) 277-317, p. 278.
  • 5. Gary S. Becker, A Treatise on the Family, (Harvard University Press, 1981/1993) p. 37, 62.
  • 6. Robert I. Lerman and W. Bradford Wilcox, For Richer, For Poorer, How Family Structures Economic Success in America, (American Enterprise Institute/Institute for Family Studies, 2014), p. 32.
  • 7. Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, “Putting Children First: A Progressive Family Policy for the 1990s,” white paper from the Progressive Policy Institute (September 27, 1990), p. 12.
  • 8. James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families, (Harper Collins, 2002), p. 11.
  • 9. Daniel P. Moynihan, “A Dahrendorf Inversion and the Twilight of the Family: The Challenge of the Conference,” in Daniel P. Moynihan, Timothy M. Smeeding and Lee Rainwater, eds., The Future of the Family, (New York, New York: Russell Sage Foundation , 2004), p.xxi.
  • 10. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” The Atlantic Monthly, April 1993.
  • 11. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up With a Single Parent: What Helps, What Hurts, (Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 23.
  • 12. Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, (University of California Press, 2005), p. 130.
  • 13. Jonathan Rauch, “The Widening Marriage Gap: America’s New Class Divide,” National Journal, May 19, 2001, 1471-1472.
  • 14. Robert I. Lerman, “Marriage and the Economic Well-Being of Families with Children: A Review of the Literature,” (Urban Institute and American University, July 2002), p. 10, 27-28.
  • 15. Robert I. Lerman, “Married and Unmarried Parenthood and Economic Well-Being: A Dynamic Analysis of a Recent Cohort,” (Urban Institute and American University, July 2002), p.20-22, 32.
  • 16. Robert I. Lerman, “How Do Marriage, Cohabitation and Single Parenthood Affect the Material Hardships of Families with Children,” (Urban Institute and American University, July 2002), p.20, 27.
  • 17. Robert I. Lerman, “Impacts of Marital Status and Parental Presence on the Material Hardship of Families with Children,” (Urban Institute and American University, July 2002).
  • 18. Sara McLanahan, “Diverging Destinies: How Children are Faring Under the Second Demographic Transition,” Demography, 41 (2004) 607-627, p. 608, 614.
  • 19. Kay S. Hymowitz, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, (Ivan R. Dee, 2006), p. 19-22.
  • 20. W. Bradford Wilcox, “When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America,” The National Marriage Project , University of Virginia, December 2010, p. ix, xi, 16.
  • 21. Andrew J. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), p. 165-168.
  • 22. Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, (Crown Forum, 2010), p. 154-165.
  • 23. Robert I. Lerman and W. Bradford Wilcox, “For Richer or Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America,” American Enterprise Institute/Institute for Family Studies, 2014), p. 3-4.
  • 24. Laura H. Lippman and W. Bradford Wilcox, “Mapping Family Change and Child Well-Being Outcomes,” World Family Map 2014, Child Trends, 2014, p. 49, 59-60.
  • 25. Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, (Simon and Schuster, 2015), p. 64-70.

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