For the last two years, the United States has been suffering from an unemployment rate of around 9 or 10% and a stagnant economy. Solutions offered by American political leaders have plunged the country into a plethora of debt that threatens the nation’s economic integrity. The unprecedented size of the economic stimulus package has done little to restore the monetary vibrancy of the nation and the hope for a better life that formerly was widespread among America’s youth.
The present political and economic strategies proposed to resolve our problems are patently superficial, especially when one considers that the surge of non-traditional family structures has unleashed deleterious forces upon the American economy for nearly five decades. It is probably no accident that, statistically speaking, the United States reached the pinnacle of its economic power in the mid-to-late 1950s. At that time, although the United States comprised just slightly over 5% of the world’s population, it produced 56% of the world’s goods.The United States then enjoyed the highest marriage rate in the world. By contrast, today America has the world’s highest divorce rate.
After a slight but steady decline from 1948 to 1962, the American divorce rate skyrocketed in 1963 and continued to rise for 17 consecutive years; the levels have hardly abated since. Daniel Lapin expresses the conclusions of countless social scientists when he argues that “for less than fifty years we have been living with the result of saying all ways of organizing families and societies are equally valid.” Aside from their pervasive effects on a number of behavioral and academic outcomes, non-traditional families produce a prodigious drag on the American economy. It is distressing that we apply what are nothing more than band-aid solutions to fix the American economy when these family factors are some of the most substantial long-term forces debilitating the country’s financial health.
The relationship between the two-biological-parent family and economic prosperity is an immense one. As Harnish McRae observes, “the conventional family is an efficient mechanism for combining bringing up children and making a living.” There are a number of reasons why non-traditional family structures constitute such a drain on the American economy. In fact, unless this trend is reversed, the United States appears destined to lose its position as the world’s foremost economic power, a position it has enjoyed since about 1900.
First, non-traditional family structures are the greatest cause of American children's living under the poverty line. In the United States, only about 10% of children raised in a two-parent family live below the poverty line. Approximately 66% of children from single-parent families live below the poverty line. In addition, nearly 50% of adults who have lived on welfare consistently started there after becoming a single parent. Nicholas Wolfinger notes, “Divorce often takes a dramatic toll on women’s incomes. Partially as a result, rates of poverty for mother-headed households traditionally have been about five times those for two-parent families.” Since the rates of single-parenthood have risen so greatly, the largest proportion of the poor is no longer the elderly, but children.
Second, the United States has spent an unprecedented amount of money to support these children. No nation in the history of humanity has spent so many billions of dollars to improve the financial situation of the impoverished. From this we can conclude that no other civilization has ever so vigorously attempted to ameliorate the situations of single-parent children. The percentage of American children under the poverty line rose from 14% in 1969 to 20.6% in 1990. A growing number of researchers and politicians are acknowledging that the best anti-poverty program for children is a stable, intact family. The United States is creating a society in which the major distinguishing feature between the “haves” and the “have nots” is which child has a father at home.
Third, the prevalence of non-traditional family structures is putting the offspring of these parents at a competitive disadvantage with children from intact families, so that a smaller percentage of children from non-traditional families will likely realize their potential. Lief Jensen, David Eggebeen, and Daniel Lichter conclude that “changing family structure is the greatest long-term threat to U.S. children.” Children from non-intact families are much more likely to be on welfare.
McRae observes that “another set of costs is imposed by family break-up … Even after adjusting for the greater poverty of one-parent families, it appears that their children are more likely to leave school early, and to be unemployed than children from homes with two parents present.” Today it is almost universally recognized that the scholastic achievement of children wields great power over their future economic success. Poverty that results from single-parenthood is one of a variety of factors that causes single-parent families to be less stable for children than if they lived in an intact two biological parent family.
Fourth, the increase of non-traditional family structures has produced a large number of children who suffer from behavioral problems. Their struggles have robbed them of a good future and have hurt the lives of countless others affected by their actions. These behavioral problems significantly impact the long-term economic welfare of these youth.
Boys from single-parent families are much more likely to join gangs than their counterparts in two-parent families. Generally speaking, about 90% of adolescents and pre-adolescents in gangs come from single-parent families. This finding is consistent with conclusions reached by psychologists that one of the primary reasons that boys join gangs is because they are looking for a surrogate father. David Blankenhorn observes, “Put simply, we have too many boys with guns primarily because we have too few fathers.” Research has shown that many youth possess feelings of anger toward one or more family members because of family dissolution or because the child does not know who his or her father is.
Social scientists cannot be phlegmatic about the influence of single parenthood on children, because the consequences of this family structure are much more far-reaching than short- (or long-) term economic instability. David Popenoe declares,
Father absence is a major force lying behind many of the attention-grabbing issues that dominate news: crime and delinquency, premature sexuality, and out-of-wedlock teen births, deteriorating educational achievement, depression, substance abuse, and alienation among teenagers, and the growing number of women and children in poverty.
The truth is that children from fatherless homes are more likely to be rapists, murderers, or commit suicide. They are more likely to drop out of school, to be unemployed for long periods of time, and to be homeless. They are more likely to abuse women and their own children. The need for compassionate individuals who can reduce the effects and, more broadly, the incidence of single-parenthood is manifest. Children from intact families are less likely to have pre-marital intercourse and are less likely to get divorced than their counterparts from non-traditional family structures. On average, children from intact families consistently fare better by almost every measure of psychological, behavioral, and academic well-being than their counterparts in non-intact families. As Popenoe avers, “the problem of divorce would surely be less serious if children were not involved.”
If one considers Japan and South Korea as the nations that have experienced the greatest increase in their standards of living since 1960, it is no accident that each of these nations had very low levels of single parenthood during their times of explosive economic growth. During the 1960-1990 period, which was Japan’s period of most dramatic growth, the divorce rate in Japan was one of the lowest in the industrial world. Outside of the United States in the 1950s, it is also interesting to note that West Germany and Japan grew the fastest in legal marriages per 1,000 in population. In the 1960s, Japan surpassed the United States as the country with the highest marriage rate. Over the next twenty-five years, Japan has had the fastest growing economy in the world. (In the U.S., the divorce rate surged after declining from 1948 to 1962, so that the U.S. surpassed all industrial nations in this measure.) Similarly, today Korea has the lowest rate of pre-marital intercourse in the industrialized world. There is often a high positive correlation between marriage rates and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, and a negative correlation between divorce rates and GDP growth. Granted, these statistics are correlational and, were they to stand by themselves, they would not necessarily imply causation. However, the juxtaposition of these statistics with other facts indicates some of the reasons why there is such a strong relationship between marriage and economic growth. Appreciating this relationship can yield economic and social policies that are teeming with acumen far more than the policies of the present administration.
What should we do about these findings? Answers to that question in part two of this article.
William Jeynes is Professor of Education at California State University, Long Beach. He is a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute.