Family structure and stability matter for children
From a report by AEI and Brookings Institute
The future of any country rests in part on how the country prepares the next generation to live and to lead. Childhood is a consequential and cost-effective time to make investments that last a lifetime. Yet, many children do not have the resources or relationships they need to build a strong foundation for their future.
Since 2019, scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution have convened a working group of leading experts to study the challenges and opportunities facing children in America. They have now reported and some of the findings have direct relevance to any country.
In particular, for this article, there is a chapter on Family Structure and Family Stability. Here is an excerpt:
The working group agrees that the research evidence indicates that, on average, children who have:
two parents who are committed to one another;
a stable home life;
more economic resources; and
the advantage of being intended or welcomed by their parents
are more likely to flourish.
In general, they believe that evidence suggests that marriage is the best path to the favourable outcomes highlighted above. Marriage is of course not the only path that allows children to succeed; many children raised by single parents and cohabiting parents thrive in life. Even so, in the United States, marriage continues to be the institution most likely to combine the four benefits outlined above for the sake of children.
Marriage matters to children. Having married parents typically means that children live in families with more resources, including more time with their parents, and with greater stability. While these factors in themselves point to a range of improved outcomes for children, the benefits of growing up in a family with married parents is more than a sum of these parts. Yet a long, steady decline in marriage rates over the past five decades means that more children are growing up in single-parent families. Today about one in four children ages 0–12 does not have married parents. While the decline in marriage has occurred across all demographics, more than one in three children whose mother has an education level of less than a college degree does not have married parents.
Compared to cohabitation, for instance, marriage in the United States is markedly more likely to bundle commitment, nonviolence, and stability. Other research indicates that children born to cohabiting couples who never marry are almost twice as likely to see their parents break up, compared to children whose parents are married, even after controlling for a range of confounding factors, such as parental education,
race, and income.
There are many reasons why children raised by married parents are more likely to flourish compared to children raised in single-parent families. For example, children in married-parent families have access to higher levels of income and assets, more involvement by fathers, better physical and mental health among both parents, more family stability, and many other factors. Most of these individual factors have been shown to have a positive impact on children’s well-being and the advantages of being raised in a married-parent family appear to be more than the sum of the inputs. For example, children raised in stable, married-parent families are more likely to excel in school, and generally earn higher grade point averages. The effects of family structure are even stronger for social and behavioral outcomes related to schooling, such as school suspensions, etc.
Because families that have two parents are more likely to have two earners, children in stable, married-parent families enjoy markedly higher income and lower risks of poverty and material deprivation. Child poverty would be markedly reduced if the marriage rate was the same as it was in 1970. Marriage increases the odds that families have access to two earners, reduces the odds that households go through costly family transitions such as a divorce, engenders more support from kin, and fosters habits of financial prudence, including more savings. The links between family structure and children’s economic well-being also extend over the life course. Upward economic mobility is much higher for the children of married parents.
Of course, marriage does not guarantee an environment in which children get what they most need—a secure and stable environment with engaged and nurturing caregivers. But, in the review of the evidence, the working group concludes that marriage offers the most reliable way to promote these ends.
The working group underlines that the differences in outcomes are primarily the rates at which children experience adversities; most children from single, step, and cohabiting families do well or average on most outcomes. In other words, many children from non-intact families do thrive.
They also acknowledge that the quality of family life is crucial for the well-being of children, and not just the structure and stability of their family lives. Children do better when they receive high levels of affection, attention, and consistent discipline from their parents. By contrast, children exposed to authoritarian and abusive parenting, or to high levels of conflict between their parents, are more likely to suffer, regardless of their family structure.
However, given the evidence, there are roles for both policy and civil society in promoting and supporting marriage, including:
targeted reductions of any marriage tax penalties;
improved economic opportunities that will in turn promote marriage; and
communication of clear public messages about the importance of marriage for children.
Download the full report here.
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