Americans are pessimistic about almost everything these days, and in many cases, for good reason. The climate, their personal safety, the value of their 401(k)s, the cost of housing: It’s a wonder we’re not living in the midst of a national insomnia epidemic. A Pew survey published earlier this month, adds one more to the list of worries: the American family. “Americans are more pessimistic than optimistic about the institution of marriage and the family,” the report concludes. At the risk of adding to the general sleeplessness, I would point out that a closer reading of the report suggests Americans are actually not pessimistic enough.
Arguably the most decisive trend of the past half century of social change is the decline in the percentage of children growing up with two married parents. Close to—but not quite—half of the Pew respondents say this is “a problem for the country’s future.” But 39 percent say it’s neither positive nor negative, while the remaining 11 percent say the surging number of children growing up apart from at least one parent is actually a good thing. Extrapolating from that, we can conclude that a little more than half of the population thinks it’s just not a big deal. That majority is composed of more women than men, more young adults than older, and more Democrats than Republicans.
What’s startling about these findings is that decades of research—most recently and fully laid out by economist Melissa Kearney in her new book The Two-Parent Privilege—tells us that the 51 percent is just plain wrong. On the most basic level, children growing up in a single parent household have fewer resources: less money, less parental time, and less stability. They are at a higher risk of behavior problems and dropping out of high school, not going to college. If they do go to college, they’re also at a higher risk of failing to complete their degree.
The vast majority of children with unmarried parents live with their mothers. Parents who cohabit without being married have a much higher likelihood of breaking up within a few years after a baby is born. Once that happens, fathers tend to become either occasional visitors or, in too many cases, entirely MIA in part because both parents often go on to other relationships and start new families. Boys in particular suffer without their fathers in the house, and statistically speaking, having a stepfather doesn’t seem to help.