Q: Are Single-Parent Families a Major Cause of Social Dysfunction?

By Fagan, Patrick; Coontz, Stephanie | Insight on the News, December 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

Q: Are Single-Parent Families a Major Cause of Social Dysfunction?


Fagan, Patrick, Coontz, Stephanie, Insight on the News


Q: Are single-parent families a major cause of social dysfunction?

Yes: Broken families strongly correlated with a range of social pathologies.

Is the single-parent family a symptom or a cause of social disintegration in the United States? Paradoxical as it may sound, it is both. Obviously, people living in single-parent families do not have bad intentions, but they are trapped by their own or their parents' actions in a form of community that harms children. The evidence is all around us: dangerous, failing schools in America's inner cities, crime-plagued neighborhoods, crowded prisons and high rates of drug addiction.

Different family forms are the end result of two major kinds of rejection among adult parents: either out-of-wedlock birth or divorce. In 1950, for every 100 children born, 12 children entered a broken family. In 1992, for every 100 children bore, 58 entered a broken family. With proportions this high it is more difficult for the nation to have a consensus on family life. But, even as the consensus decreases, the case for the intact married family becomes more compelling, as does the evidence that the single-parent family is a much riskier place for a child. Of course some single-parent families do a better--sometimes a much better--job of raising their children than some married parents do. But, all other things being equal, the intact married family beats the single-parent family in every measurable dimension.

That does not mean that single-parent families are to be blamed in any way--quite the opposite. Because of the difficulty of raising children, of forming the next nation, single parents need all the help they can get. But neither the nation nor single parents need to hear that their family form is just as good for their children as any other one. This will shortchange their grandchildren, doubly so, because behind every single-parent family is a serious and hurtful rejection between the adults. The rejection between the adults has myriad consequences for the physical, intellectual, emotional, economic and social development of the child and of society. No one can be indifferent to this rejection or say it does not have serious consequences. Claiming that all family forms should be equally esteemed is to insist--against all evidence--that there is no difference between the love of father and mother and the love of only one parent. We cannot afford to hide the truth just to be nice. Much more than feelings are at stake as the following summary of the broad directions of the social-science research data show.

Right from birth the health of the newborn is at risk. Controlling for education, income and health of the mother, being born out of wedlock increases the risk of infant mortality and of ill health in early infancy, according to the National Health Interview survey of 1989. Nicholas Eberstadt, a visiting scholar at Harvard University's Center for Population Studies, has written that the health of a child born to a college-educated single mother is at greater risk than the health of a child born to married grade-school dropouts.

The verbal IQ of children in single-parent families also is at risk. As Hillary Rodham Clinton has made popularly known, the verbal IQ of the child is intimately linked to the amount of verbal stimulation the child gets. The single parent has a hard time giving the same amount of stimulation as two married parents can give, all other things being equal. That is common sense.

The verbal IQ is the building block of education, and at all levels of family income the child from a single-parent family will perform at lower levels all through grade school, high school and college. This translates into lower job attainment and salary upon joining the workforce. This means that, overall, children of single-parent families are less productive in the marketplace as a group, produce less and therefore contribute less to the common tax base. …

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