The eighth grade girls cleaned up at the middle school graduation I attended last week. Of the four major awards, three went to girls, and just one to a boy.

This pattern is all too typical in American life today. Two-thirds of high school students in the top 10% are girls, while boys dominate the ranks of the bottom rung, as Richard Reeves noted in his book “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What to Do About It.” This pattern doesn’t stop at middle school, either, as college classrooms — including many of mine at the University of Virginia — are generally dominated by young women. We are fast approaching a world where only 40% of college students are male.

What is happening in our schools and colleges today is emblematic of what is happening in all too many domains of life, which is that, for more and more young adults, females are flourishing and males are floundering. Young women are outpacing young men in college, graduate school and many a workplace in cities across the United States. Meanwhile, young men are much more likely to be denizens of the basement or, even worse, prison or jail.

What accounts for this male malaise? Education scholars Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Stephen Billings and David Deming point to the effect that strict schools can have in elevating the odds that boys end up in prison — especially Black and Hispanic boys. Reeves points to the ways that schools hold boys back by offering them insufficient opportunities for recess and attention from male teachers, among other things. And psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his new book “The Anxious Generation,” points to the negative effects of Big Tech — especially gaming and pornography — in robbing boys and young men of their ambition and countless opportunities to engage the real world.

But one word generally goes unmentioned in contemporary discussions of our male malaise: “marriage.”

The scholars and activists who are tackling the misfortunes of our boys and men rarely focus on the breakdown of marriage as a crucial cause of young men’s problems. Even Reeves, the president of the new American Institute for Boys and Men and who acknowledges that “dads matter” for boys, minimizes the importance of marriage and family structure in boys’ lives in “Of Boys and Men.” By his account, what matters for males is a good relationship with Dad — the requisite “time, engagement, involvement, closeness, and so on.” Good fathering can take place in or outside of an intact, married home. “There is no residency requirement for good fatherhood,” Reeves contends. “The relationship is what matters.”

But in the real world, boys who reside with their married fathers are much more likely to flourish, and boys who live apart from an intact, married family are much more likely to flounder. In fact, a new study finds that boys who don’t reside with their married fathers are, amazingly, more likely to go to prison than graduate from college, whereas boys from intact, married families are markedly more likely to graduate from college than spend time in jail.

According to a new Institute for Family Studies report I wrote with Sam Herrin, Jesse Smith and Wendy Wang, young men who grew up in an intact family with their married father are almost twice as likely to graduate from college as they are to land in prison. By contrast, young men from homes headed by a single mother, single father, stepfamily or adoptive parents are more likely to go to jail than graduate from college.

What’s more: Their parents’ marriage seems to matter more for young men than their race when it comes to predicting their odds of ending up incarcerated, according to this study. This is striking given the ways so much of the research and discourse around the incarceration of young men has focused more on race than family.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, fingers “racial bias” as keeping “more people of color in prisons and on probation than ever before.” The ACLU had nothing to say about family breakdown on this topic. And yet data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health tell us that being Black elevates a young man’s odds of landing in jail by 65%. On the other hand, coming from a home without his mother and father increases a young man’s odds of being incarcerated by almost 86%. In other words, what we are seeing is a fragmented family pipeline to prison that is almost completely overlooked in our public discourse.


A similar story applies to college graduation. Family structure predicts young men’s odds of graduating from college better than race does. Young men from non-intact families are 56% less likely to graduate from college, according to the study. By contrast, being Black reduces the odds of graduating by 27%.

Statistics like these are telling. They tell us that not only are our public discussions about what ails our young men off the mark, but also, contra Reeves, a father and mother’s “residency” seems to matter. Young men in stepfamilies, single-mother, single-father and adoptive families are much more likely to fail in one of the most profound ways — by landing in jail. By contrast, young men who hail from families where their father is married to their mother are almost twice as likely to graduate from a college or university, compared to their peers who don’t enjoy a similar residential advantage.

So, as Father’s Day approaches, it’s worth celebrating the men and women who make countless sacrifices to get and stay married, thereby putting their boys on a pathway toward not just winning a prize at a middle school graduation but taking a degree home from a place like Princeton rather than spending time in prison.

Brad Wilcox is a professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the author of “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization.”

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