Originally published by Center of the American Experiment. You can find the original document here.
If rates of family fragmentation (including the failure of families to form at all) remain high, it will be difficult to move the needle on stagnant upward mobility, poverty, crime, and education. Many laudable efforts can have an effect, but family structure variables remain most significant.
The correlation between poverty and family strength, for instance, is clear. One of the strongest findings in this regard is the research from the Equality of Opportunity project, which found that “the strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure such as the fraction of single parents in the area.”
We have known for a long time how foundational marriage-parent families are to child wellbeing. Sarah McLanahan and Gary Sandefur summarized this best:
If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal. Such a design … would not only ensure that children had access to the time and money of two adults, it also would provide a system of checks and balances that promoted quality parenting. The fact that both parents have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child and be willing to sacrifice for that child, and it would reduce the likelihood that either parent would abuse the child.
Then, why the virtual silence on this subject in national politics? Probably because most believe there’s not much that can be done to affect family formation or family integrity.
In a recent meeting on intergenerational poverty in Salt Lake City, a politician said that we all know that children in poverty need two invested parents who read to them and take an interest in their education, but that’s just not the reality. Consequently, the discussion moved to other possible solutions.
Yet it’s worth talking more—and doing more— about what we all recognize would help.
Talking about it more would itself be valuable. Widespread practice suggests that many people don’t recognize the value of the stable, secure family life they can give their children through their choices about family formation. It’s more common for this issue not to get much thought, and raising the issue makes it more likely that adults who are at the age to form families would be more intentional about it.
There are plenty of disincentives that could be removed, such as the legal treatment of divorce as essentially unimportant, as evidenced in short or nonexistent waiting periods, anemic (or again, nonexistent) divorce education, and so on.
Premarital education could also be incentivized. Individuals receiving public assistance could be given more information about forming and sustaining healthy marriages.
We also should not confine our thinking about solutions to potential legal changes. The social sector is likely to be far more significant in shaping attitudes and practices related to family strength. Churches are particularly important and have a record of accomplishment in fostering integrity in marriages and families.
One reality that can motivate these efforts is that even modest gains would be consequential. We really won’t know if we can make a difference until we try.