A new Harvard study released this month entitled “Where is the Land of Opportunity?: The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States” provides expanded insight and a refreshing new weight to the findings of previous MARRI research. As Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project explains in his January 22 article in Slate, this new study takes center stage because it is “the first major study showing that rates of single parenthood at the community level are linked to children’s economic opportunities over the course of their lives.” Experts in the realms of social science and social advocacy have long been pushing for greater attention to be given to the relation between a child’s well-being and the marital status of his parents. And as our own research has revealed, social trends in which the state has a significant interest—particularly the educational success and productive potential of children—are shaped in large part by family intactness. Another MARRI study found that while education, income, race, and ethnicity are all factors to be considered when determining positive outcomes for children, they fall short in significance compared to the level of family intactness. Harvard’s study in effect joins hands with MARRI’s findings, showing the tight link between individual family units and the entire community when it comes to the effects of broken family structure.
To many, the assertion that having married parents helps kids do better in school and in life may seem like the beating of a dead horse—but in fact, such claims are only one facet of a large and problematic reality that we as a society will soon face. Not only does single parenting put the child at greater risk of continued poverty or stagnancy—that parent’s entire community takes a blow. To understand this fully, we must consider the implications of this research in terms of which family status to promote. Marriage must be the encouraged norm of a community in order for people to thrive. In this healthy, stable, relational space, the less common single parents who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances can have the support of a married community to aid them. The intact majority bolsters the non-intact few, and all can be pushed towards mobility and strength—so long as marriage is the dominant culture of the community.
On the other hand, when single parenthood grows and marriage weakens, incomplete parental support becomes the defining culture of the area, ultimately leading a community away from economic mobility and health. As the proportion of those who need stabilizing aid grows relative to those who can give stabilizing aid, that community is already regressing and cannot offer much hope of upward mobility to its children. Encouraging marriage in the political and social realms is not intended to disregard or disrespect the single mother—in fact, as the Harvard study reveals, her children and her neighbors’ children are in theory at a disadvantage if we fail to foster a better alternative. Sadly the subjects of the study—single parents and broken family structure—are becoming more the norm in the United States as divorces increase, out-of-wedlock births rise among many people groups, and marriage loses public and political esteem. If we hope to avoid this broken outcome becoming our national standard of success, married couples must be the driving force in encouraging and supporting marriage for their communities.