A recent study by the Institute on Family Studies revealed how young women who marry in their 20s without cohabitating first are more likely to experience long-term marital success. Another study documented that couples who get married earlier in life experience greater romantic satisfaction and better communication.
I believe another item can be added to the list of marital benefits: Couples which marry, instead of just cohabitating or going their separate ways, are more likely to produce and raise emotionally and physically healthy children who succeed in life.
Sara McLanahan’s Heart for ‘Fragile Families’
A few weeks back, I read the obituary for Sara McLanahan, a Princeton University sociologist who produced numerous landmark studies on this topic. Her most famous work, the “Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study,” documented how children born to single mothers – instead of intact families – experienced poorer outcomes in life, with the accompanying social problems that result from such consequences.
McLanahan set out to prove academically what she already knew from personal experience, having been a single mother to three children. Her eventual husband and fellow researcher Irwin Garfinkel said, “Her research showed that growing up in [a] single-parent family, even as you control for as much of the observables that you could possibly do with data, was damaging. And children did less well, and that was not very welcome news.”
As Garfinkel noted, her views found her in sharp conflict with those who affirmed single parenting as just another “option” for women. “We reject the argument that people should not talk about the negative consequences of single motherhood for fear of stigmatizing single mothers and their children,” she wrote in 1994. “While we appreciate the compassion that lies behind this position, we disagree with the bottom line. Indeed, we believe that not talking about these problems does more harm than good.”
Her research resulted in other academics coming to the same conclusion. “The family is the essential core of any society, and the steady decline of two-parent households is probably the single most consequential social trend of the half-century,” wrote Dr. Peter H. Schuck in 2017. “Indeed, the single best predictor of low upward mobility in a given geographic area is the fraction of children with a single parent.”
When Marriages Decline, Kids Suffer
For instance, 31 percent of single mothers have reported they are poor and more than 28 percent said they were “food insecure.” The average income for a single mother is approximately $48,000, compared to $102,000 for a married couple. The result is what Robert Rector called a “two-caste society.” The true inequality in our society is between those children who are raised in a traditional two-parent home versus those who are not.
While I acknowledge that single mothers can be great mothers, there is still something lacking that is necessary for children’s emotional development and goes beyond mere economics. That missing element is a father.
McLanahan knew this. In one of her studies, done with Dr. Cynthia Harper, she found that young men who grow up in fatherless homes are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families. Other studies have shown that fatherless girls often become severely depressed or sexually promiscuous as they seek to fill the void left by the absence of a loving father.
And the problem is getting worse. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that “The number of children living with two parents has dropped since 1968, while the percentage living with their mother only has doubled. In 1968, 85% of children under 18 lived with two parents (regardless of marital status); by 2020, 70% did.”
In 1970, there were nearly 77 marriages for every 1,000 women 15 years of age or older. By 2010, that number had decreased to roughly 32 marriages per 1,000 – the lowest rate in American history.
It is not a coincidence, as McLanahan understood from personal experience and her research, that many of our societal problems such as generational poverty and increased sexual violence have resulted from the rise of single parenting and the breakdown of the traditional family. As former Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson wrote back in 2018, “We are condemning more of our children to a precarious upbringing — and that is a problem.”
It is my hope that while McLanahan may no longer be with us, we will continue to take her research and warnings to heart and restore a culture of marriage in our society: a culture that will provide women with hope and children with the nurturing and economic environment to thrive, rather than trapping them in a cycle of despair.