The most important domestic fact of our era is declining child well-being. With each passing year, the evidence mounts; it is getting harder to be a child in the United States. For at least the past two decades, scholars and policy makers have engaged in a vigorous debate over the primary reason for this decline. Is it the impact of television? Drugs? The increase in violence? Working mothers? A stagnating economy? A lack of community and government supports?
Many factors are important, but one is central. Especially over the past five years, growing numbers of scholars and policy makers have concluded that the primary reason for declining child well-being is family fragmentation, the break-up of the two-parent home.
The evidence suggests that family fragmentation undermines child well-being in six basic ways. First, by removing one parent from the home and multiplying outside pressures on the other, family disruption almost always results in a dramatic loss of parent-child contact time – by far the most important ingredient in the recipe for a happy, successful childhood. Second, family fragmentation typically generates a more unstable world for children. Residential changes become more common; living standards fluctuate more often; important adults, such as boyfriends and stepparents, come and go more frequently. Third, since single-parent homes are typically fatherless homes, children are deprived of male authority and paternal nurture. Fourth, family disruption frequently means greater social isolation: half as many available grandparents to be spoiled by; fewer cousins to visit; less rootedness in the local community. Fifth, family fragmentation often leads to economic vulnerability. Often, it means poverty. Sixth, and most centrally, family fragmentation generates lasting anxiety and self-blame in children by confirming that the two most important people in their lives cannot be depended on to stay together and stay with them.
The importance of the two-parent home to a child's well-being is no longer a political debate of liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican. Nor is it any longer a serious academic controversy of one study versus another study, my field versus your field. On this issue, the social science data are increasingly clear and complementary.
Instead, understanding the centrality of the two-parent family today is a matter of simply facing the truth about our children's future. Earlier this year, for example, the National Commission on America's Urban Families, a bipartisan presidential panel on which I served, warned that "no domestic trend is more threatening to the well-being of our children and to our long-term national security" than "the steady disintegration of the mother-father child-raising unit." Also this year, the Council on Families in America, a bipartisan group of nationally prominent family scholars and experts, concluded that "the current disintegration of the well-functioning, two-parent family is a central cause of rising individual and social pathology: delinquency and crime (including an alarming juvenile homicide rate), drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, depression, eating disorders and the growing number of children in poverty.
Similarly, the National Commission on Children, another politically and intellectually diverse federal panel, concluded two years ago that "there can be little doubt that having both parents living and working together in a stable marriage can shield children from a variety of risks. Rising rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing and absent parents are not just manifestations of alternative lifestyles; they are patterns of adult behavior that increase children's risk of negative consequences." Finally, as my colleague Barbara Dafoe Whitehead concluded in her careful and much discussed review of the evidence in last April's issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "If we fail to come to terms with the relationship between family structure and declining child well-being, then it will be increasingly difficult to improve children's life prospects, no matter how many new programs the federal government funds."
The essential policy implication of this rough new consensus is clear. The only feasible strategy for reversing the current trend of declining child well-being is to reverse the underlying trend of family fragmentation – to increase the proportion of children who grow up with their two married parents and decrease the proportion who do not.
Yet most of today's policy proposals seek primarily to address the consequences of family fragmentation. Consider, for example, the Clinton administration's current family-policy agenda: full funding for Head Start, more and better programs to help at-risk children, summer jobs for teenagers, better family supports in the workplace, a bigger earned income tax credit, tougher enforcement of child support payments. All these ideas may be good ones, but none of them directly addresses the single-biggest generator of growing childhood distress: the continuing disintegration of the two-parent family.
What can be done to reverse the trend? The Clinton administration is currently considering a major new initiative to reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock childbearing in our society. By defining and embracing it, the administration can help the nation to transform an emerging consensus about the problem into a coherent strategy for doing something about it. Indeed, if this president can lead the nation toward reversing the trend of unwed childbearing, he will have achieved a goal of historic importance.
Unwed parenthood now accounts for about 30 percent of all female-headed homes in the nation. Moreover, it is the nation's fastest-growing family structure trend. Already, non-marital childbearing has reached virtual parity with divorce as a social generator of female-headed homes. Sometime during the mid-1990s, if current trends continue, the total number of father-absent homes created by unwed childbearing will surpass the number created by divorce.
A growing proportion of all non-marital births now occurs among older, college-educated people. According to recent estimates, these "single mothers (and fathers) by choice" now account for at least 10 percent of all childbirths in the nation. In short, this trend is becoming mainstream.
Many people who disapprove of unwed childbearing in the case of poor teenagers express the opposite view in the case of older, more affluent women. Because these are mature adults who can support their children economically, goes the argument, who has the right to criticize them? The answer is that unwed childbearing is harmful to child and societal well-being regardless of the parents' skin color, age or income. For example, numerous clinical and psychological studies of fatherless children suggest that the economic consequences of fatherlessness, while important, are relatively trivial compared to the psychological and characterological consequences. Fatherhood cannot be reduced to a matter of money. There is something deeply hypocritical – perhaps at times even racist – about a society that condemns a behavior when it occurs on one side of the tracks, while it accepts, and even celebrates, the same behavior when it occurs on the other side.
We can no longer ignore any of the dimensions of this crisis. If we do not reverse this trend, all our other efforts to help children will not succeed. This way of thinking about the problem will require some changes in the administration's current policy agenda. For example, some administration officials, including Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the surgeon general, are optimistic that we can reduce unwed parenthood among teenagers by expanding the number of school-based health clinics, including those that dispense contraceptives.
Unfortunately, the research evidence does not ' support this optimism. There is very little evidence that the approach favored by these officials – teaching "safe sex," dispensing condoms, viewing adolescent sexuality in narrow health terms rather than as a moral concern – is doing anything at all to reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Today's prevailing educational strategy reduces the problem of unwed parenthood to one of contraceptive ignorance. But this misses the main point. What primarily determines teenagers' sexual behavior is not what they know about birth control, but what their world is like and what they believe about themselves. Do they come from strong, intact families? Do they do well in school? Do they believe that unwed parenthood is morally wrong? Do they believe that the future holds opportunity for them? To avoid unwed parenthood, young people must have more than the means. They must also have the motive. No strategy that avoids these facts will be effective.
For these reasons, a school's cultural climate – its basic rules and set of expectations – is far more important than its health clinic in influencing the likelihood of unwed parenthood. It is probably safe to say that dispensing school uniforms would do more to reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing among teenagers than dispensing condoms.
We need a new approach to deal with unwed parenthood that is far more comprehensive, more I radical and more rooted in basic moral values. President Clinton should lead a national debate intended to shake off defeatism on the subject. He should insist that our nation commit itself to reversing this trend in this decade. He should make reducing unwed childbearing a centerpiece of welfare reform and tax reform. He should support legislation requiring states to identify the father of every child born. He should speak up in favor of marriage. He should suggest that we try that experiment regarding uniforms versus condoms. He should enlist a rainbow coalition of entertainment and sports stars to teach young people about responsible parenthood. Most of all, he should embody political courage and moral seriousness by insisting that unwed childbearing is wrong.
On Monday, a lesbian parent speaks out.
This article originally appeared here.