The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Family Data Put Academics in a Bind

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

“Is marriage the ideal living arrangement for children, and if so, should government encourage marriage?” These are the linked questions guiding sociologist Susan L. Brown of Bowling Green State University as she set out to assess twenty-first-century research on how family structure affects children’s well-being. Brown’s analysis provides ample evidence that children enjoy their best life chances if they grow in a married-couple family. Unfortunately, her analysis also provides oblique evidence that the strictures of political orthodoxy make it difficult for academics to acknowledge this plain truth openly and fully.

Although Brown nowhere identifies just how the cultural firestorm of the 1960s burned away traditional supports for wedlock and family life, she does acknowledge, “In recent decades, the living arrangements of children have become increasingly varied and unstable.” Brown quantifies just how varied and unstable home life now is for children, noting that, in 2009, just two-thirds (67 percent) of American children lived with two married biological parents, compared to more than five-sixths (84 percent) in 1970. On the other hand, almost one fourth (23.5 percent) of children lived with a single mother in 2009, compared to just more than one-tenth (11 percent) in 1970. Demographers estimate that “roughly one half of children can expect to spend part of their childhood outside of a married-parent family.”

And while parental divorce accounts for much of the change in children’s home circumstances, so too has non-marital cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing: While less than a fifth (18 percent) of all American children were born out of wedlock in 1980, almost two-fifths (39 percent) were born to unmarried parents in 2006.

Recent changes in family circumstances have been even more striking among minority children: by 2009, the percentage of black children living in families headed by two married biological parents had fallen to just 35 percent, while fully half of black children were living in single-mother homes. In the same year, slightly under two-thirds (64 percent) of all Hispanic children lived in families headed by two married biological parents, while one-quarter (25 percent) lived in single-mother households. By 2006, out of wedlock births accounted for fully half (50 percent) of all births among Hispanics and almost three-quarters (71 percent) of births among African Americans.

Not coincidentally, “the rise in unmarried families . . . has coincided with an increase in child poverty.” Indeed, Brown acknowledges: “Child poverty is highly differentiated by family structure, ranging from a low of about 7% for children in two-biological-parent married families to a high of nearly 44% in single-mother families.” What is more, Brown finds that even children living with two cohabiting biological parents are “more likely to be poor and to experience material hardship” than are children living with two married biological parents.

The more favorable economic circumstances of married-couple families clearly favor the children growing up in such families rather than in other family forms. After all, as Brown remarks, “Economic deprivation impedes effective parenting by making it harder for parents to provide all of the material goods and services that are linked to child development.” Further research indicates, “marriage is also related to paternal investment” in children in ways suggesting “marriage itself may foster paternal engagement.” Of course, an absence of paternal engagement means solo parenting by the mother: And solo parents (typically mothers) who lack a spouse to cooperate and consult with about parenting decisions and stressors tend to exert less control and spend less time with their children” than do married-couple parents.

Children born to married parents also enjoy the great advantage of stability in their home lives. Brown concludes that children born in such circumstances “typically experience relatively few family transitions during childhood, whereas those born to single and cohabiting mothers experience substantially more transitions, on average.”

The differentials in household income, in paternal investment, and in family stability make it entirely understandable that “over the past decade, evidence on the benefits of marriage for the well-being of children has continued to mount.” Though Brown curiously chooses the adjective “modest” to characterize the advantage children in married-couple biological-parent households enjoy, she concedes that this advantage is a “consistent” one, an advantage that “persists across several domains of well-being. Children living with two biological married parents experience better educational, social, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes than do other children, on average.” Nor are the advantages that children enjoy in married-couple biological parents short-lived: rather, they “endure through adulthood.”

Further inquiry establishes that it is the combination of biological parenthood and stable wedlock that creates the optimal environment for children. Children living with unmarried but cohabiting biological parents experience “worse outcomes, on average,” than do peers living with married biological parents. Similarly, “children in married stepfamilies fare worse than do those in two-biological-parent married families, . . . appearing similar to [children] in single-mother families.”

Brown adduces an impressive wealth of research establishing the social importance of wedlock. Curiously, however, not all social scientists are persuaded. Brown replays the arguments of skeptics who would explain away the social benefits of wedlock by invoking a “selection effect.” These skeptics argue that the supposed benefits of marriage mean nothing except that it is wealthier and better-educated men and women who choose to marry. Children would do just as well if they were raised by equally wealthy and equally well-educated parents who did not choose to marry. Fortunately, Brown undercuts this line of argument by reporting research that indicates that “marriage may change people in ways that can enhance well-being.”

Still, Brown herself evinces a curious and unfortunate anxiety about having developed an analysis that will offend against progressive sensibilities if translated into conservative pro-marriage policies. What else would account for her short endorsement of same-sex marriage that ill comports with the empirical evidence she herself outlines indicating that children do best when reared by both biological parents, united in wedlock? What else would explain Brown’s concluding assertion that “encouraging marriage per se is not enough”—as though anyone is advocating a focus on marriage so narrow that it leaves out parental industriousness, studiousness, responsiveness, and attentiveness? What else would explain her call for “the development of family policies and programs that enable parents to provide family environments in which children thrive, regardless of family structure”—as though the whole thrust of her analysis had not compellingly established that one particular family structure far surpasses all others in giving children the opportunity to thrive?

(Susan L. Brown, “Marriage and Child Well-Being: Research and Policy Perspectives,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 72.5 [October 2010]: 1059–77.)