This is one of the most important, and most researched questions in child development and family studies. Yet, clear answers are hard to find. Children of single parents fare much worse in terms of social problems in the U.S. Yet the same is not true in many European countries.
American children of single parents do much worse in terms of committing crimes and getting incarcerated and other social problems including drug abuse, school dropout, and unemployment. They are much more likely to be single parents themselves. If they do marry, their unions are more likely to be troubled (1).
These implications of family structure were pointed out early on by Senator Daniel Moynihan and his warning s have been seconded by numerous family sociologists, developmental psychologists, and other scholars, including William Julius Wilson, David Popenoe, David Blankenthorn, Paul Amato, Patricia Draper, Jay Belsky and many others, including myself (1).
The problem is that these concerns were stimulated mainly by data from the U.S. This country has the dubious distinction of being a developed country with a great variety of third-world problems, beginning with an unusually high rate of child poverty. Children of single mothers are overwhelmingly raised in poverty and their experiences during childhood set them up for occupational failure, drug abuse, crime, and many other problems.
The situation in Europe’s leading social democracies is very different. Sweden is an interesting case because marriage is possibly weaker there than in any other country. Just because Swedish parents do not marry does not condemn their children to a blighted existence characterized by economic failure, crime, and personal calamity.
Thanks to a well-developed government safety net, and aggressive collection of child support owed by absent fathers, child poverty has been virtually eliminated in Sweden (2). Children of single mothers do not suffer from material privation. They are not forced to live in crime-ridden slums. They do not move often to stay ahead of rack renting landlords.
Despite the fact that most Swedish children do not live in stable two-parent households, they escape high levels of crime, drug addiction, school dropout, or teen childbearing (2). The most obvious explanation for the “missing” social problems is that Swedish kids benefit from the relatively comfortable material conditions in which they are raised.
It is also worth pointing out that they may benefit from living with their fathers during their early years. Although young Swedish couples mostly do not see the point of marrying, fathers do live in the same homes as their children initially. Yet, such cohabiting arrangements are highly unstable (2).
So the differing outcomes of non marriage in Sweden versus the U.S. is most likely explainable in terms of elevated child poverty here. Non marriage does not cause child poverty in Sweden so there are no social problems as a result. In the U.S., non marriage definitely results in child poverty (and social problems, 3) but poverty may also be a key driver of single parenting.
Does poverty cause non marriage, or does single parenting cause poverty?
Historical analysis of single parenting in the U.S. reveals an intriguing pattern. The surge in single parenting over the past half-century applies mainly to poor families. If one looked only at families enjoying middle-class incomes there was never any noticeable increase in out-of-wedlock childbirths that remained at the level of about one in 20 throughout the 20th century (4).
It is certainly true that single parenthood is associated with bad academic outcomes and subsequent poverty for children. On the other hand, opting to raise children alone is generally a response to the economic stresses of living in poor neighborhoods where local men are unmarriageable because they are unemployed and have poor occupational prospects, or earn so little that they cannot help to support a family.
In this sort of environment, marriage is no guarantee of better outcomes for children. Indeed, the presence of poor fathers in the home may be a risk factor for family conflict.
Conflict-ridden marriages may be worse for children than being raised by single mothers.
Based on the evidence, social scientists have no business promoting marriage (5). There is a far better case for promoting a safety net for children In the U.S., we save a lot of money by waiting until residents are old before the government takes care of them.
This is a false economy. If child poverty were eliminated, the need for government support at other ages would decline. There would be far less crime and educational failure. More Americans would live in prosperity thereby increasing tax revenues.
Non marriage causes social problems only if it contributes to child poverty. Conversely, if child poverty is eliminated, non marriage of parents has no impact on social problems.
1. Barber, N. (2000). Why parents matter: Parental investment and child outcomes. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.
2. Popenoe, D. (1988). Disturbing the nest: Family Change and decline in modern societies. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
3. Amato, P. (2005). The impact of family formation change on the cognitive, social, and emotional, well-being of the next generation. The Future of Children, 15, 89-90.
4. Abrahamson, M (1998). Out-of-wedlock births: The United States in comparative perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger.
5. Blankenthorn, D. (2007). The future of marriage, New York: Encounter books.