Unmarried with Children
July 3, 1999
by Ryan Streeter
More than one million children each year for the past 27 years have experienced a reduction in family income between 30 and 40 percent, casting nearly half of them into poverty. The reason? Divorce.
A Department of Health and Human Services study of 30,000 American households found a common denominator among children most likely to have emotional and behavioral disorders: they live in single-parent families. Racial and economic status were largely non-factors.
For the past decade, studies have repeatedly been suggesting that the best predictor of a child's well-being-economic, emotional, and otherwise-is the parents' marital status.
Strangely, we have excluded marriage from public debates about children's well-being, preferring instead to concentrate on a host of other issues from sex education to employment.
And yet children living with single mothers are six times more likely to live in poverty than those from married households. Children of unmarried parents are up to twenty times more likely to be abused. Fatherless teenage girls are five times more likely to become pregnant (and be poor) than their peers with married parents. Fatherless males make up over 70 percent of prison inmates, rapists, and repeat juvenile offenders. Children from broken homes are more likely to raise children outside marriage, be poor, perform worse academically, and inherit significantly less money from their parents.
Adding to the problem, the marriage rate in America has dropped to its lowest point in recorded history. More Americans are preferring not to marry, even if they have children.
We can't afford this. Just last week, a Rutgers University study, co-authored by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, delivered a blow to today's conventional wisdom about cohabitation, or "living together." Couples living together before marriage are twice as likely to divorce-and four times as likely if they eventually marry someone else-than those that marry without cohabiting. Eighty percent of all children with cohabiting parents will spend some part of their childhood in a single-parent home, exposing them to the above probabilities.
Even without eventual breakups, cohabitation is usually bad for children. While the 1996 poverty rate was six percent for children in married households, it was 31 percent in cohabiting households.
Researchers from left and right are forming a consensus on this like no other social issue. Fearing ridicule, none of them defends Murphy Brown anymore. Unmarried households are, in general, not working for kids.
This is not to say that single parents never raise good children. Many do a heroic job with their kids and deserve our admiration. But if we want to look our children in the eyes ten years from now, we need to confront our "marriagelessness"-a new word for a new era.
We can start by changing the stigma attached to unmarried parenting. We should let the facts, not our received errant opinions, guide us. Our entertainment media need to understand this at least as much as they need to understand violence. We parents have to prove to our children that we love them enough to lay aside specific rights for their sake.
Second, we need divorce laws that put children first. Mutual consent, required for marriage, should be required for divorce. No-fault divorces, however convenient for the unhappily wedded, are hurting children. Many argue that we need more covenant marriage laws, which raise marital standards and make divorce more difficult. Covenant marriages are usually chosen by people that already value marriage. What we really need are laws requiring proof that a divorce will improve the well-being of the children involved.
Third, publicly and privately funded initiatives could increase the number of "marriage-saving" organizations working in cooperation with courts, hospital paternity establishment (more than 70 percent of unmarried urban parents are romantically involved when their child is born), schools, and neighborhood organizations. The private community need not wait for the government's lead on this one. Government responses, usually constituted by overly-developed means and under-conceived aims, will be slow in coming and less effective than private organizations such as "Marriage Savers," which preserves marriages with great success.
Investing in marriage pays for our children's future. They want us to take this seriously.
Ryan StreeterRyan Streeter is Vice President of Civic Enterprises, LLC, a public policy development firm in Washington, DC. Streeter was a research fellow of the Welfare Policy Center at Hudson Institute from 1998-2001.