The State Of The American Family In 2020

Sep 19th, 2020 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

According to Stephanie Kramer, “A [2019] Pew Research Center study of 130 countries and territories shows that the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households. Almost a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 live with one parent and no other adults (23%), more than three times the share of children around the world who do so (7%). The study, which analyzed how people’s living arrangements differ by religion, also found that U.S. children from Christian and religiously unaffiliated families are about equally likely to live in this type of arrangement.  In comparison, 3% of children in China, 4% of children in Nigeria and 5% of children in India live in single-parent households. In neighboring Canada, the share is 15%.”  Such data is a red flag of a deep social reality in American Civilization—the dismal state of the American family.

God has created three primary institutions through which He does His work—the family, the state and the church.  Each has important stewardship responsibilities and each is accountable to Him.  The state is not to raise children; that is the family’s responsibility.  The church is not to raise an army and defend the nation; that is the state’s responsibility.  The family is the institution God created for procreation, and for raising up and training children in the ways of God (see Genesis 2:18-25; Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Ephesians 6:1-4; Colossians 3:2-21, etc.).  This edition of Issues gives focus to the state of the American family in 2020.  The Social Capital Report has issued its July report on this very subject.  It is both insightful and concerning.  Here is a summary of the most salient elements of this most relevant report.   [Underlining is mine for emphasis].


  1. “Most of our relationships have some value to us, else we would not be in them. They constitute social capital—a form of wealth every bit as valuable as financial or human capital. Family relationships are the first a person experiences in life. Children are nurtured, taught, and socialized in the family, and from there learn to relate to others and participate in the broader society. A stable family offers the emotional security a child needs for healthy development. As Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan has noted: If we were asked to design a system for making sure that children’s basic needs were met, we would probably come up with something quite similar to the two-parent ideal. Such a design, in theory, would not only ensure that children had access to the time and money of two adults, it also would provide a system of checks and balances that promoted quality parenting. The fact that both parents have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child and be willing to sacrifice for that child, and it would reduce the likelihood that either parent would abuse the child.  As sources of valuable social capital, few relationships are as important as the family ties between parents and children. However, as with other features of our associational life, family ties have been weakening for several decades.  Today, around 45 percent of American children spend some time without a biological parent by late adolescence. That is up from around one-third of children born in the 1960s and one-fifth to one-quarter born in the 1950s.  Even more strikingly, among the most disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, even fewer children are raised in continuously intact families. Single parenthood is experienced by two-thirds of the children of mothers with less than a high school education and by eighty percent of black children. This inequality in family stability contributes to but also compounds economic inequality.”
  2. “Researchers have well established that children raised by married parents do better on a wide array of outcomes. They have stronger relationships with their parents, particularly with their fathers.  They are also much less likely to experience physical, emotional or sexual abuse. They have better health, exhibit less aggression, are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior, have greater educational achievement, and earn more as adults. They are also far less likely to live in poverty.”
  3. “What is self-evident—without consulting research—is that more children would fare better if more were raised by their married parents within a healthy relationship. As the Social Capital Project wrote in its earlier report, The Wealth of Relations, compared with children of single parents, children with happily married parents get to see both parents every day, spend the holidays with both, and they don’t have to feel guilty about spending or enjoying more time in one household than the other. Nor do they have to question whether they caused their parents to break up. They have a single set of household rules, a single bedroom and wardrobe. Their schedule does not depend on which parent they are staying with. They get engagement from both parents and avoid hearing parents acidly complain about each other. Their parents are less exhausted by childrearing. They get the material benefits of economies of scale and of higher family income. They are witness to what a loving relationship looks like and have first-hand evidence that such relationships are secure and sustainable. And they avoid having to adjust to the changing romantic lives of their mother or father—changes which can include disruptive remarriages and family-blending.”
  4. “The Wealth of Relations also noted that cutting-edge research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues implies that growing up surrounded by family stability is also beneficial to children: the team looked at adults who, as children, were poor but lived in low-poverty neighborhoods. They found that black men had stronger upward mobility the more low-income black fathers there were in their childhood neighborhood. This was true regardless of whether someone’s own father was present, suggesting that even the family cohesion of other black children in the neighborhood affected them. Meanwhile, having more low-income white fathers in the neighborhood did not increase the upward mobility of poor black children; nor did having more low-income black men who were childless. More low-income black fathers in a neighborhood also corresponded with higher future.”
  5. “However, American families are far less stable today than in the past. Fewer Americans are married, more romantic relationships take place outside of marriage, more marriages end in divorce, and ultimately, more children are born into or raised outside of intact families. Although most Americans still marry or say they would like to marry, marriage is not nearly as common as it was in previous generations.  Overall, between 1962 and 2019, the percentage of women ages 15-44 who were married dropped from 71 percent to 42 percent.   Furthermore, the percentage of women ages 30-34 who had never married increased from 7 percent in 1962 to 35 percent in 2019.”
  6. “As marriage has declined, couples have become more likely to cohabit as unmarried couples. In the 1960s, less than one percent of couples living together were unmarried—a figure that rose to 5 percent by 1990 and stood at 12-13 percent as of 2019.  Furthermore, marriage is much more likely to be preceded by cohabitation today than in the past. Among women ages 19 to 44 who married between 1965 and 1974, just 11 percent had cohabited with their husbands prior to marriage, but that number jumped to 32 percent among those who married between 1975 and 1979 and continued to soar thereafter. For the past two decades, two-thirds of new marriages have been preceded by cohabitation.  The combination of unwed births and divorce has led to a marked rise in the share of children living with a single parent. Fifty years ago, in 1970, 85 percent of children lived with two parents, four percent of children lived with a divorced single parent, while another one percent lived with a never-married parent.   (The rest lived with only one married parent present, had a widowed parent, or lived with neither parent.) In 2019, just 70 percent lived with two parents.  Roughly 10 percent lived with a divorced single parent, and close to 15 percent lived with a never-married parent.”
  7. “Family instability in the United States has also led to an increase in the percent of Americans who have children with multiple partners, creating complicated relationships across households. Nearly 16 percent of all parents in the United States have children with more than one partner, and in 20 percent of all marital or cohabiting relationships, at least one of the partners has children with more than one partner.  Furthermore, fathers with multi-partner fertility are less likely to say they feel close to their children and are more likely to have failed to establish paternity for at least one of their children.


Conclusion:  “The Social Capital Project has documented the myriad ways in which associational life has deteriorated over the past fifty years. Nowhere is this decline more worrisome than in the realm of family stability. Relationships have become thinner and more fragile in many aspects of life, and the value of the social capital available to us has diminished as a result. But for children, there is no substitute for the benefits that come from strong family bonds. Unfortunately, family instability has increased to the point where it is the norm for many Americans today. Troublingly, those most likely to experience family disconnection are the least-advantaged among us. While family instability does not necessarily doom a child to poorer life outcomes, it often means greater disconnection in the most intimate of human relationships and less social capital of the strongest type. Changing the course of family stability will likely require substantial effort, given the magnitude of the challenge in many American communities today and the pervasiveness of the decline. Compounding matters, our understanding of what got us here is woefully incomplete. It should be no surprise, then, that policymakers have yet to find a way to reverse the troublesome trends documented in this report. Until we get a better sense of what has caused family breakdown to worsen and of what policies are effective at reversing breakdown, policymakers will need to experiment with a variety of approaches. Toward the end of strengthening families—the source of so much potential happiness or sadness in our lives—Americans of all backgrounds and perspectives must come together and make headway on this most important modern-day problem.”

See “The Demise of the Happy Two-Parent Home,” Social Capital Report, REPORT NO. 3-20 (July 2020); Stephanie Kramer, “U.S. has world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households,” Pew Research Center, (12 December 2019).

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