Reinvigorating Family Life: Critical to Restoring Opportunity

Eric Cochling

Any married person with children realizes how incredibly tough single parenting must be. With two parents, the job is daunting. A single parent who successfully raises a child does what can only be described as heroic. Between providing financially, emotionally, and spiritually, a single parent has an enormous amount of responsibility. By its very nature, single parenting means — in all but the rarest of cases — fewer resources, less time, more stress, and more struggle than typically exists in a two-parent household.

It is no wonder, then, that in Creating an Opportunity Society,[1] authors Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill cite marriage before the birth of children as one of the key steps in what they call the “success sequence” for individuals to avoid poverty. The “marriage-then-children” step, along with the other aspects of the success sequence — graduating from high school and obtaining a stable, decent-paying job — paves the way for avoiding poverty and achieving a middle-class income. Of those who follow all three elements of this sequence, only 2 percent will be in poverty. Among those who do not, about three-fourths will experience poverty in any given year.

Haskins and Sawhill are not alone in their assessment of the key role of an intact family in achieving life success. Raj Chetty and his colleagues from Harvard University and the University of California–Berkeley reached similar conclusions in a 2014 study of opportunity and economic mobility in the United States.[2] They cited family structure as one of five key factors for economic mobility across generations. Specifically, they found significantly less mobility for individuals from single-parent households. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector has made a similarly compelling case for the antipoverty significance of intact families, estimating that marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by more than 80 percent.[3]

Given these consistent findings about the role of family structure and the ideological diversity of the groups and individuals reaching the same conclusion, it is disheartening to see that the percentage of children in America being raised by single parents continues to grow. While the trend is not surprising — after all, it has gone on for nearly 50 years with barely an interruption — what it tells us about the future should be of grave concern to anyone who cares about poverty and the countless challenges that adults and children in single-parent households face. The children being raised in these households, through no fault of their own, are bound to face struggles that their similarly situated friends from intact homes will not face.

When parents misstep in the success sequence, their children’s steps to success — high school graduation, employment and intact family formation — are more difficult to achieve. Children raised by single moms are less likely to graduate high school. Without a high school diploma, young adults often struggle to find good-paying jobs. Young adults — especially young men — without a job may be seen as less marriageable but become parents nonetheless. When this happens, instead of a success sequence, a person is more likely to be set on the path of the poverty cycle, which quickly becomes generational, absent significant change or intervention.

Unabated, this decades-long trend will mean very predictable things for our country: progressively higher levels of poverty and the brokenness related to both poverty and broken relationships. As poverty grows, demands on an already vast welfare system will grow. Since the start of the War on Poverty, also about 50 years ago, federal spending on poverty relief has grown by over 1,600 percent.[4] Given the growth in single-parent homes — and the even faster rise in unwed childbearing — we should expect that trend to continue well into the future.

Sadly, the War on Poverty has taught us that while it is possible to intervene in the lives of children and adults when family falls short, those interventions are expensive and cannot fully compensate for what a stable family life would have provided. To reinvigorate opportunity in America, we have to start by restoring the health and vitality of the American family. Nothing less will do.

Eric Cochling is Executive Vice President and General Counsel at the Georgia Center for Opportunity.

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  1. Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2009).
  2. Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, “Where Is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 19843, January 2014, http://www.nber.org/papers/w19843 (accessed May 16, 2016).
  3. Robert Rector, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 117,
    September 5, 2012, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2012/09/marriage-americas-greatest-weapon-against-child-poverty
  4. Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “The War on Poverty After 50 Years,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2955, September 15, 2014, http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/09/the-war-on-poverty-after-50-years

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