The Index of Belonging and Rejection released this week from the Family Research Council (FRC) reveals a dismaying statistic about the state of American families: 55 percent of 15-to-17-year-olds in America do not live in intact families.
Further, more than 40 percent of all children are born out of wedlock, and one in three children live in single-parent homes. If Americans are concerned about the next generation, it’s time to strengthen marriage.
The importance of intact families cannot be overstated. Research shows that children tend to do best with their married fathers and mothers. Overall, teenagers in intact families are more likely to be emotionally healthy, have higher self-esteem, and progress further in education. Boys who have grown up with their married biological parents are particularly less likely to have behavioral problems, such as heightened aggression or substance abuse. Teenage pregnancy rates are seven to eight times higher for girls whose fathers are absent. As President Obama clearly stated in 2008, the absence of a father is significant:
We know the statistics—that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.
Having married parents makes an especially profound difference in the lives of children from low-income households. Marriage decreases the likelihood of child poverty by 82 percent. The research is clear that children who live in single-parent homes—or communities where the majority of homes are headed by single parents—have a significant disadvantage in moving up the income scale.
In fact, children who do not have intact families are disproportionately concentrated in the lower third of the income scale. The FRC report reveals harsh realities for children from low-income communities. In Chicago, 86 percent of African American children don’t live with both of their married parents. Many poor neighborhoods across the U.S. show similar realities: 85 percent of children in Detroit and 64.5 percent of children in Richmond, Virginia, were born to single mothers.
How do you turn this around? The good news is that there are some amazing nonprofits whose goal is to help restore strong marriage. One example is First Things First in Richmond, which provides education programs that encourage active fatherhood and strengthen marriage in Richmond’s low-income communities. They teach adolescents and young adults the three keys to avoiding poverty: (1) graduate high school, (2) get married, and then (3) have kids. The order is important. Their results are real: More children are protected from the pain of broken families and the risks of poverty.
While lasting changes must come from the ground up, there is still a critical role for policy—it should remove disincentives to marriage in welfare policy. More children and adolescents will thrive when both the government and culture focus on strengthening marriage.