In the last 50 years, family structures have changed dramatically. Just half a century ago, 75 percent of children lived in a home with two married parents in their first marriage. Today, less than half of children are raised in such a traditional situation, and more than a third are raised by single parents. This dramatic shift from the traditional family structure to these fragmented families has gathered the attention of numerous researchers and now, after decades of research, some of the effects are becoming clearer.
One important finding is the effect of family fragmentation on poverty. A recent article by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that a decline in marriage has contributed to an increase in poverty, even after controlling for education, age and population shifts. The effect of marriage (or lack thereof) on poverty can easily been seen in single-parent homes. Generally single-mother families are more than five times as likely to be poor as married-couple families.
But family fragmentation affects more than just income. Research indicates that children of divorced parents often suffer from increased psychological and social difficulties. Even if a child’s parents remarry, there are often conflicts in the combining of two different families. In short, research indicates that children who are raised by their married biological parents tend to have more favorable outcomes than other children.
Another reason to prevent further family fragmentation is to improve social mobility. Generally speaking, the richest and poorest American families fall into two main groups: strong well-educated families, and fragmented less-educated families. Both social groups are largely self-replicating — that is to say children from strong families with well-educated parents are more likely to form strong well-educated families like their parents. Conversely, children from fragmented families with less education are more likely to be less educated and form fragmented families. Hence it is much more difficult for children raised in poor, fragmented families to live poverty free in adulthood.
So what can be done to strengthen families and reduce the number of fragmented families? One avenue proposed by politicians is to modify tax and welfare codes since married couples often receive fewer government financial benefits than they would if they were cohabitating. Although these changes would indeed be a step in the right direction, it’s unlikely that marriage rates would increase substantially, particularly for households that do not receive welfare. Changing tax and welfare codes won’t be enough.
An alternative strategy would be to provide marriage and family education programs. Started in 1999, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative offers classes to parents on topics including conflict resolution, co-parenting skills and financial management. These classes are offered to unmarried expectant and new-parent couples and have seen a great deal of success. Couples that completed this program were 20 percent more likely to stay together continuously during the study than those in the control group. In addition to government programs, there are numerous nonprofit organizations that provide resources to strengthen families.
In 1960, only 5 percent of children were born outside of wedlock. Today that number has risen to 41 percent. Decades of research have made it clear that children raised in fragmented families are less likely to be successful in a plethora of areas. This is reason enough to dedicate resources to strengthen families within the United States. In light of recent research indicating family fragmentation also contributes to poverty, this argument becomes even more compelling. By investing in family structures, we will see a long-term reduction in poverty and fewer children growing up in fragmented families.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Richard Payne, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.