Less than half of children growing up in home with married parents — UPDATED

Less than half of children growing up in home with married parents — UPDATED November 25, 2011

At a time when a lot of us are gathering with our families, a new study indicates that a majority of those families are fractured:

Only 46 percent of children in the United States will reach age 17 having grown up in a home with biological parents who are married — a figure that has a significant impact on the nation’s graduation, poverty and teenage birth rates, according to a new report, reports Baptist Press.

“We have never faced anything like this in human history,” said the Family Research Council’s Pat Fagan, one of the co-authors of the study.

Compiled by Fagan and psychologist Nicholas Zill and released by the Family Research Council’s Marriage & Religion Research Institute, the data shows that:

— The intact family rate is highest in the Northeast (49.6 percent) and lowest in the South (41.8)

— Minnesota (57) and Utah (56.5) have the highest intact family rate among all 50 states, with Mississippi (34 percent) the lowest.

— Asians (65.8) have the highest rate among ethnic and racial classes, blacks (16.7) the lowest.

The authors call their report the index of family belonging, and they say there is a direct correlation between a low “family belonging” rate, and high poverty and low graduation rates.

Read more.

UPDATE: A reader sent me the following e-mail, which offers another perspective, along with a response to some comments:

1) The Family Research Council is NOT an unbiased organization, and their data is not peer-reviewed. Their data shouldn’t be trusted, and isn’t taken as credible in most contexts. The group’s existence and funding rest on trotting out such data on a regular basis. (Note – they don’t cite the study that points out that children of lesbian couples tend to fare best overall: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,594090,00.html – are they overlooking that conclusion?)

2) Which came first, the stigmatization, or the suffering? If we all treated every family we meet as a Holy Family, asking how to help rather than judging based on family composition, would outcomes be different? 

My own subjectivity – I’m one of those ghastly “single parents”. My parochial-school educated son is taking online math through [a university] because he’s blown through his school’s curriculum, and then some. Suggestions that he “can hardly compete with those who have the advantage of two involved parents” simply strain credulity. If I weren’t in a charitable mood, I’d find that assertion infuriating. Instead, I think it’s just silly and untrue. But to the extent he is successful, it’s no thanks to sanctimonious “Christian” attitudes like those expressed here tonight.

The difference? Privilege, to be sure – and yes, social and spiritual support. We’ve experienced nothing but love and acceptance from our family, our parish, his schools, our friends. We single parents – even Catholic ones – support one another, too, across race, class, and gender lines, because all too often we encounter attitudes like the ones here, which get bonus points for being pious, but no, won’t ever “get a more positive reception” because you’re simply focusing on the wrong question. Do you really love these families, these kids? Or do you love your stereotypes and piety more?

 If we treated every single family we encountered as Holy – regardless of the composition, regardless of whether the kids were initially “wanted” – how might that change our world? Our Church?

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27 responses to “Less than half of children growing up in home with married parents — UPDATED”

  1. I’d like to know what the difference is, if any, with adopted children. The study says biological children. Families formed through adoption are just as intact.

  2. Sadly, family issues tend to be overlooked by Americans, including Catholics, who focus on larger questions of social justice, but the massive and growing inequities in America are closely related to increasing family dysfunction. Children raised in single-parent households find it difficult even to maintain the education/income levels of their parents, much less to rise in the world. They can hardly compete with those who have the advantage of two involved parents.

    A generation ago, in the days of the Moynihan Report, single parenting was common only among the very poor and minorities, especially African Americans. Today it is becoming the norm among the lower-middle class of all races. Only better educated Americans still marry before bringing children into the world, and they are far more likely to stay married until their children reach adulthood. Not surprisingly, those children tend to fare much better than their peers from less favored circumstances, and the gap between rich and poor consequently grows even wider.

    When the Church addresses this issue, our concerns are generally dismissed or ridiculed as old-fashioned moralism. I wonder if we get a more positive reception if we emphasized the social consequences of family breakdown.

  3. “When the Church addresses this issue, our concerns are generally dismissed or ridiculed as old-fashioned moralism. I wonder if we get a more positive reception if we emphasized the social consequences of family breakdown.”


    When I speak to groups about the life issues, I always emphasize that the commandments and the moral norms are there as a prescriptive to avoid precisely the sort of disintegration happening all about us. I always tell folks that as epidemiology gets to the top of the mountain, it will find God has been sitting there all along.

  4. Greg:

    Thank you very much for the added “UPDATE.” I was hoping someone would confront this issue head-on. The cause-and-effect conclusions being drawn by the original article are tenuous at best and hardly fit my own pastoral experience here. Here are two stories:

    –In the past three years, I have baptized the infant child of three single mothers. These were not in “private/no-visitors-allowed/no-publicity” ceremonies but in our regularly scheduled parish rotation every other month.The last one was rather unforgettable. That child’s “Godfather” was a classmate of that single-mom from high-school and was — himself — the son of a couple whose wedding I presided at some 25 years ago. The dynamic at work was something special. That child will have a strong support system all through its life because the “Godfather,” his parents and his siblings are all strong faith filled Roman Catholics.

    –This school year, my wife and I have a freshman at our local community college living with us. The young lady is a child of a badly scrambled relationship that she certainly had no direct responsibility for. Neither of her parents were ruled appropriate as “custodial” by the courts (for whatever reason) but she is on good terms with both and visits with both regularly. She also has a strong support system through grandparents on both sides. She is an absolute delight and we’re glad she is living with us.

  5. IMHO there is an incredible amount of stereotyping that goes on when wider society — not just “Christians” –talk about the “single mom.” Three in particular really annoy me:

    –That all the children of single-mom’s are “Whoops!” babies — the products of “teen-agers-in-heat” (as one commentator so indelicately put it) who did not know or care about the dynamics of the “pill.” That is not at all true.

    — That all of the children of single-mom’s are born to younger women from cultural minorities in our wider America (Latinas and African American women are the most mentioned). That is not true at all either.

    –AND then there are those white middle-class American families who seem to want to understand why some teen-age girls from some cultural minorities might WANT to deliberately get pregnant and be a “single-mom,” no one who was “proper” would ever make that decision. That also is not true.

    I will never forget a conversation I had with one of the US-DHHS “Teen Pregnancy Prevention” Specialists at a major conference on Marriage and the Family at Emory University ( a very “CHRISTIAN” institution). When I asked her about the phenomena of teen-age girls WANTING to get pregnant, she readily admitted that regularly happens in Hispanic and African American sub-cultures but dismissed that it ever happens in the “white-upper/middle-class” community. I stopped dead in my tracks and looked at her in amazement. She must have been able to tell I did not believe her and so she went on to talk to others. Bottom line, she was either totally ignorant, was not at all willing to dethrone her own self-image, or perhaps even that she was one of those “white-upper/middle class” teenagers who deliberately wanted to get pregnant herself and I had hit a very sensitive nerve.

    Maybe it was the chronology of this conference. It was held in the Spring of 2003; in fact CNN television was covering our attack on Bagdad during the second Gulf War and there were a number of folks watching the TV rather than “conferring.”

  6. I don’t know about statistics or righteous statements; I know by personal experience, having had parents with multiple marriages and divorces, the pain, brokenness, dysfunction that the children on broken marriages create. I have seen members of my family deal with divorce and single motherhood, and I have seen the wake of negative consequences. I have seen suicide, violence, alcoholism, drug addictions and the tremendous damage to souls that all of these create. Don’t give me the line that children are hardy and tough, or that single motherhood or divorce couples are just fine. The destruction, pain and scars are there.

  7. Sorry, Deacon Greg, but it does not show pastoral sensitivity to deny the grim consequences of family breakdown in America by citing exceptional cases. My students in the inner city used to love to do that as a way of rationalizing their own inability or failure to form stable 2-parent families: “Well, my mama raised me and my sisters without any help from our fathers, and we turned out just fine, and my baby’s gonna turn out just fine too even without his sorry daddy in his life.” The only way to give an honest response without provoking a further outburst was to say, “I hope and pray that will be true.” But the fact is that (a) the speaker had really suffered (and often knew that full well) from being deprived of a father and (b) her child was most likely to suffer even more, likely caught up in a cycle of intergenerational deprivation.

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warnings about the “cycle of pathology” in black America caused by family breakdown have proven sadly prophetic, and similar ills are now spreading throughout our culture. I highly recommend that those who are skeptical read the work of Kate Hymowitz summing up the research on this and the unfortunate consequences of denying the obvious truth:


  8. Whenever the topic of divorce comes up on Catholic blogs, there are always responses from parents saying they are divorced and their kid is in Mensa on or on the Olympic team or something. To them I say, wonderful, God bless. The fact remains that divorce, and even worse, never being married, is not good for children. Yes, there are the children that will thrive and do wonderfully despite being from broken homes, note the word “Despite.” Not “Because of.”

  9. Another important study that can hardly be criticized as the work of agendized social conservatives is James T. Patterson’s Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life–from LBJ to Obama (2010). What happened to black America as a consequence of ignoring the crisis in family life is happening to the rest of America as well, and those who ignore or excuse it are subjecting future generations to a very similar “tangle of pathology” (to cite Moynihan’s phrase correctly).

  10. So, the lady who thinks the Family Research Council is biased provides a link to an article about a study that concludes that children raised by lesbian couples are psychologically healthier and better behaved than children raised by heterosexual couples, and faults the FRC for not citing this study. Yes, the study was based on self-reporting by lesbian couples and their children, and is headed by a woman who is herself in a same-sex relationship. But, hey, those are no reasons to think that the study might be biased.

    Give me a break!

  11. I don’t think it has to be contradictory; trying to encourage stable families, telling young people why it’s best to wait until one is married before becoming parents; but yet meeting people where they are and recognizing that they’re trying to do the best they can. All of us have made decisions that in retrospect turned out to be problematic. Most of the accounts which I have read of single parent homes where the children are doing fine cite extended family support and strong relationships with their church and community. I think your reader who wrote the update is right that every family is potentially a holy family; as long as we’re still on earth God isn’t finished with us yet.

  12. Deacon Greg,

    Building on BobRN’s comments above, I would like to come to FRC’s defense on this one. I’m working with Jeanne Monahan at FRC (she is the Director of their Center for Human Dignity) in putting together a series of medical conferences on therapeutic advances in poor prenatal diagnoses. The conferences will feature Ob/Gyn’s, perinatologists, pediatricians, etc.

    The suggestion that FRC is some political organization not tied to MD’s, Ph.D.’s, etc is patently false. On staff is Dr. David Prentice, Ph.D. in Biochemistry, who heads their stem cell initiative as Senior Fellow for Life Sciences.

    Those of us affiliated with FRC, or the pro-life movement have the burden (rightly so) of having to ensure that every single statement we make is rooted in the mainstream, peer reviewed scientific literature; be that social science or the biological/medical sciences. We submit our work to other peers in the sciences to ensure that not one single statement of inaccuracy may be used as a smokescreen to discredit the rest of our work.

    FRC’s study in question here is not at all out of line with the overwhelming body of peer reviewed social scientific literature showing that children of divorce do not fare as well as children from intact homes. The reader who emailed you accuses FRC of not being scientific, then offers a completely worthless (from the standpoint of methodology) paper on lesbians and their children, and then offers herself as an anecdotal case, which is the LEAST scientific of all approaches.

    Do many children of divorced parents do well in life? Absolutely!

    Do many children in intact homes do poorly in life? Absolutely!

    The issue here is one of relative numbers between the two groups and the clear-cut trends that emerge from these analyses. Not all children from intact homes fare well. Not all children of divorce fare poorly. However, the data in the peer-reviewed literature are clear that one has the best chances of success when growing up in intact families. That may rub some people raw, but that’s what the peer-reviewed literature has to say.

    Your reader’s email to you was a classic case of shooting the messenger (FRC).

  13. That study was not done by what would be considered an unbiased source, thus I will take it with a huge grain of salt!

    I too wish all children were wanted and could be raised by 2 parents—and in my opinion, the gender of those 2 parents isn’t a problem, but in this world, that is not always the case. My great grandmother raised 4 children alone as her husband died before the 4th one was born. She never remarried as she didn’t want another man raising her children. My grandfather took jobs at a early age to help, and my great grandmother worked too. The single parent is not a new situation. Some children of intact, married, heterosexual couples have problems also, so just because some children are being raised by a single parent doesn’t automaticaly put them in a high risk area for being unsuccessful etc. in school and life in general.

  14. “Decisions that in retrospect turned out to be problematic”? Come on! You make it sound as if depriving your kids of one of their parents were comparable to choosing the wrong shade of paint for your home. This is fundamentally dishonest. In reality, some kinds of damage cannot be undone. Kids who grow up in single-parent households (with the possible exception of those whose parents were widowed) suffer not only material but psychological deprivation. It is possible to compensate for the first, but the second leaves lifelong scars that cannot be undone even with strong support from outsiders. Are the kids so deprived “doing fine”? Only in the dreams of those responsible for victimizing them.

  15. The argument seems to quickly change from single parenting to divorce and cohabitation. No one bothers to think of the number of families that are effectively broken up by a parent being in the military. At best that parent is absent for long periods of time, and at worst, never returns leaving the child to be raised by either a single parent or in a family with a foster parent. Has any one looked at what happens to these children? How do they fare? If it is in reality single parenthood that is causing the problem it should be apparent in the war orphaned children.

    Another thought that crosses my mind is that this problem seems to have started and accelerated since WW II. Could this be because so many children were orphaned and raised by single parents and these children carry on that tradition? Continuing that thought, many of our military do come from the lower economic class and so I would expect the problem to be more significant in their ranks.

    I think Melody’s comments were right on, we need to meet families where ever they are at and support them. In my, opinion both Church and state are failing to support marriages and families. The efforts and money seem to be going into passing laws to stop “bad” marriages rather then building on the good one.


    Mike L

  16. I think I have a sense of who the person who wrote to you was. She is a great mother if it is who I think it is and a devoted Catholic. If people want to talk about her, well – that is their issue. She knows that she is a child of God and her son’s life is precious.

    I was at a funeral this morning, for a 40 year old man who died unexpectedly. His wife sat there with two little ones. She is now a single mom.

    My parents were married and my house was a mix of tender love and a complete nightmare. While we have lost a lot over time, it has not happened overnight and we can’t blame any one group or situation. God is alive and at work in all things, what is God calling us to now? That is always my question, always.

  17. Ron, read the rest of what I said. I’m all for encouraging marriage and family stability. But we have to meet people where they are, not where we want them to be. And no, all decisions are not equal. But there isn’t one of us that hasn’t pulled some boneheaded stunt that could have ruined our life or ended it, but for the grace of God. So we need not to sit on our judgemental high horses, but try to be part of the solution.

  18. Mike L. sez:

    “The argument seems to quickly change from single parenting to divorce and cohabitation. No one bothers to think of the number of families that are effectively broken up by a parent being in the military. At best that parent is absent for long periods of time, and at worst, never returns leaving the child to be raised by either a single parent or in a family with a foster parent. Has any one looked at what happens to these children? How do they fare? If it is in reality single parenthood that is causing the problem it should be apparent in the war orphaned children”

    To be honest with you, I am having trouble finding your point here. Are you saying that a “military family” is automatically a “single-parent-family” and thus should be treated the same statistically as the folks cited in the original post?

    I have no idea what your current experience with military families are but I am married to the daughter of a retired Army Major; my sister is married to a retired Air Force Major; two of my daughters married National Guardsmen who have been on extensive deployments in both Gulf Wars. There is absolutely no sign of the same symptoms that the author of the original posting cites. In fact, one of my daughters is heavily involved with the “Family Support Group” for her husband’s unit. Those folks — and a whole lot of other groups just like them — are an incredible support system that is now in place.

    I will agree, however, that divorce entered the America Catholic experience as a result of World War II. There were a lot of “shotgun-weddings” and “hurry-up” lightening quick weddings during those days. My father-in-law (the retired Army Major) tells a story about when he just happened to be casually walking near the base chapel one day, a chaplain comes running out who he recognized as a Roman Catholic priest, he looks at my future father-in-law: “You’re Catholic, aren’t you, Lieutenant. Quickly, follow me.” He wound up being an emergency stand-on for a missing “best man.” There was no time for a proper preparation process at all.

  19. Have I missed something here? Have I missed where FRC has suggested that we ignore the pastoral needs of the divorced adults or their children? This is a smokescreen being laid down here.

    FRC is addressing social science that has been well-established for four decades. The Church can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can minister to broken hearts and souls while giving witness to the horrendous effects of divorce, and the general corrosiveness of parents not living their home lives as sacramental marriages.

    Seven years ago, Regina and I found ourselves in a hell of our own making through years of neglecting the sacramental requirements of married life, and agrreeing that the marriage was over. That’s when two old priests, one of whom officiated at our wedding reminded me that our vows were sacred and registered before God in Heaven. Those vows were all we had left long after love had been put to flight.

    If the slide into hell was easy, the climb out was spectacular. It required a great deal of pastoral counseling, sacramental nourishment in Reconciliation and Eucharist, and the real work that was for too long ignored. Having healed and finally living our marriage as a sacramental vocation with all that the sacrament entails, we’ll never go down that road again.

    What stood in the path of the divorce was two old priests declaring that divorce was simply not an option, and calling upon me to step up to the plate and exercise honorable Christian manhood. They drew the line in the sand, and so should more clergy. We can decry the corrosion of marriage, and should, while still ministering to the needs of those who have fallen victim to divorce.

  20. It is NOT the life of the person making the “boneheaded” decision that is getting ruined, Melody. That’s the rub here. It’s a matter of setting up the worst possible situation for innocent children, sometimes for no reason except personal convenience: “I want a child but can’t find a guy I’d care to spend more than a few nights with” and/or “She was good in bed, but I can’t see myself marrying her, kid or no kid.”

    Sure, we “have to meet people where they are,” but we do not have to pretend that it is paradise, nor do we have to offer them trite but comforting sentiments that will leave them and their kids in the same hell where we found them. As for “judgmental high horses,” here is the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church on intact 2-parent families:

    The nature of conjugal love requires the stability of the married relationship and its indissolubility. The absence of these characteristics compromises the relationship of exclusive and total love that is proper to the marriage bond, bringing great pain to the children and damaging repercussions also on the fabric of society” (Compendium, #225).

    I’m sorry if that offends anyone’s PC sensibilities, but it is undeniably the truth, and we are watching it play out with increasing frequency no matter how fervently some of us try to deny it.

  21. Thank you for telling the truth. Sorry that people prefer the fairy-tale notion that some deus ex machina–whether it’s a godfather or a supportive “village”–can undo the damage caused by the generally selfish decisions of those who choose to become single parents.

  22. Advent thought—–Jesus was conceived out of wedlock!
    Permit me to share my experience as a 25-year family and juvenile court judge. The greater majority of recidivist [repeat] felony juvenile offenders came from single parent homes. Offenders from dual biological parent homes were far more likely to commit a one-time youthful prank or misdemeanor.
    I recall a study from the Dept. of Justice during the Clinton years. The study focused on delinquency and youthful crime rates in economically depressed areas. It concluded that the crime and delinquency rate were significantly lower when the “3 F’s” were all present. These three factors were family, faith and friends. More specifically, youngsters from intact families (married biological mom and dad), religious faith regularly practiced, and friends with similar faith and family values.
    As a deacon this past 22 years, I’ve had the privilege of presiding at most of the Baptisms. Whether or not the child comes an intact family is irrelevant. There is a public Baptism on a Sunday afternoon for all the kids. Our Catholic school has a policy of tuition breaks for kids from broken homes who suffer financially.
    It is important that we do not stigmatize families—especially the kids—who may not be the product of intact families. They deserve love and support—not condemnation—from the faith community.

    I wish all of my brothers and sisters on this site a blessed and joyous Advent!

  23. The fact that someone is “a child of God” and has a son whose “life is precious” does not make her an expert on parenting–nor on God’s will for parents. The Church has long taught, and continues to teach, that stable, 2-parent families are the “vital cells” of every just society. Widowhood is one thing, deliberately depriving children of one of their natural parents is quite another, and it has very different consequences for both the material and psychological welfare of the children. For that reason, Catholics are taught that the first right of every child is to “be born in a real family” (Compendium, #224). Want to know what God is calling prospective parents to do? That’s it right there.

  24. I hear you Ron, but given my own two-parent situation growing up and confirming that I do know the woman who wrote that, I stick by my original points. Before there were all the teachings, teachings that I do take quite seriously, God was pretty clear about the commandment to love God and love one another. The rules without the love… well, they are just words on paper. If not love, then nothing else can come. At least as I see it. You know – that whole “least of these” things from last week’s Gospel.

  25. Saying that kids need two parents in their lives is not a RULE, Fran. It is the simple truth, a truth confirmed by nature itself. Doing whatever it takes to make that happen is how we show LOVE to our offspring or potential offspring. What has happened to us that so many of us now speak of “love” as if it were somehow justification for behavior that destroys the lives of others? That may be the kind of “love” implicit in slogans like “Make love, not war.” It is not the love to which we as Christians are called. Christian love requires self-denial on a scale fewer and fewer Americans seem willing to make, as we see in the grim statistics about family breakdown.