Scientific research is valuable insofar as it can reinforce the truths of the Bible and principles of natural law; namely, that when we observe the way the world works (and does not work), it becomes abundantly clear that marriage matters for human flourishing almost more than anything else.
Humanly speaking, there is nothing more important for personal well-being, positive social behavior, and general success in life than being raised by one’s biological parents committed to each other in a stable marriage. Over the past forty years, a vast body of research has demonstrated conclusively that children are deeply affected by family structure and that married parents are best for children. Any efforts — whether governmental, educational, or ecclesiastical — that mean to encourage human flourishing must take this reality into account as both an explanation for many societal ills and as a means to the end of hoped-for societal health and vitality.
Not a Myth
Family life in America has changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time. In 1960, 73% of children lived with two parents in their first marriage. By 2014, less than half (46%) of children were living in this type of family. Conversely, the percentage of children living with a single parent rose from 9% in 1960 to 26% in 2014. An additional 7% of children now live with cohabiting parents. Moreover, the increase in non-traditional family arrangements has coincided with the decoupling of marriage and childbearing. In 1960, just 5% of all births occurred outside of marriage. By 2000, around 40% of all births occurred outside of marriage (a percentage that has held steady over the last twenty years). As of 2014, 29% of births to white women, 53% of births to Hispanic women, and 71% of births to black women were out-of-wedlock. In the span of only 60 years, what were once considered exceptional family circumstances have become the norm.
Given the changing portrait of the American family, it is not surprising that many people believe — or, given the uncomfortable prospect of implicitly judging others, feel compelled to say they believe — that there is no difference between one parent or two parents when it comes to raising children. According to one online survey, “more than 70% of participants believed that a single parent can do just as good a job as two parents.” Further, 60% of women “agreed that children do best with multiple adults invested and helping, but that two married parents are not necessary.” Christina Cross, writing in the New York Times, went so far as to decry “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home,” citing evidence that black children in two-parent families still fare worse than white children in two-parent families. But Cross’s argument fails to take into account how much better all children do in two-parent families compared to one-parent families of the same race. The percentage of white children living in poverty goes from 31% in families with only a mother, to 17% in families with only a father, all the way down to 5% in families with a married couple. The same percentages for black children go from 45% (mother-only), to 36% (father-only), to 12% (married couple). We can lament that black children in two-parent families are still 2.4 times more likely to be in poverty than white children (12% v. 5%), but we should also observe that white children raised by only a mother are 2.6 times as likely to be in poverty as black children raised by two parents (31% v. 12%). While there are still advantages to being white in this country, he much bigger advantage is being raised by two parents. It is better in America to be a black child raised by two parents than to be a white child in a one-parent home. The breakdown of the family is not a black problem; it is a problem wherever two-parent families decline and single-parent households become normalized.
Family Structure and Child Well-Being
The conclusion that children raised by their biological, married parents do better, by almost every measure, has been proven in hundreds of studies over the last several decades.
One of the best and most concise summaries of the academic literature comes from a policy brief published in 2003 by the Center for Law and Social Policy. Citing a 1994 study by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, the 2003 brief notes that children who do not live with both biological parents were roughly twice as likely to be poor, to have birth outside of marriage, to have behavioral and psychological problems, and to not graduate from high school. Another study found that children in single-parent homes were more likely to experience health problems, such as accidents, injuries, and poisonings. Other research found that children living with single mothers were five times as likely to be poor.
Importantly, not all types of single-parent households fare the same. Children of widowed parents, for example, do better than children in families with divorced or cohabiting parents. Children of divorce are two-and-a-half times as likely to have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems as children from intact families. Likewise, children in cohabiting families are at a higher risk of poor outcomes in a host of economic and emotional categories. Critically, these poor outcomes are not erased when the single-parent family is better off financially. Marriage is the issue, not economics. In short,