The foundation for my talk today is the World Family Map, a new international effort sponsored by the Institute for Family Studies, Child Trends, Social Trends Institute, and a number of other partners across the globe.
This project is particularly timely because much of the globe is experiencing what scholars call a secondary demographic transition. While the first transition was marked by a rise in individualism, consumerism, and the status of women, the second democratic transition is marked by a retreat from parenthood and a retreat from marriage…. One of the core aims of World Family Map is to determine how this transition is affecting children across the globe.
When it comes to fertility, for instance, the retreat from parenthood has garnered headlines as policymakers from Spain to South Korea scramble to find ways to boost their birthrates. All of this is not surprising given that in about half of the world’s countries, fertility has fallen below the replacement level of 2.1 babies per woman.
Falling fertility rates raises alarms because long-term low fertility leads to declines in labor force and increases in the ratio of the elderly who depend on the working-age population. In the words of demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, “These demographic trends portend ominous changes in economic prospects in many developed countries, major increases in public debt patterns, and slower economic growth.”
But World Family Map is not just about the number of babies being born — it’s also about the nature of the homes that they are being born into and raised within.
It seems that around much of the world a growing number of kids are being born and raised outside of a stable, two-parent home. For instance, we see that about 20 percent of kids in much of the Americas and in Europe are now being raised in homes without two-parent families; this trend is also evident in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Why does this matter to us around the world? If we turn first to research from North America and Europe, we see that kids who are not raised in two-parent homes are more likely to suffer emotionally, physically and economically.
I have to mention here that I was raised by a single mother, and many kids raised by single moms turn out just fine. But I am also a social scientist, and what I am seeing is that there are increased risks for kids who are being raised in single-parent homes across the globe.
For instance, in the United States today, we see that boys who are raised in homes without their fathers are about twice as likely to end up in prison or in jail by the time they are in their 30s — and that’s with controlling for their parents’ income and education.
And dads matter for daughters as well: We see in the research that girls who are raised in a home without their father are much more likely to end up pregnant as teenagers.
Then we turn to a more positive outcome … human capital: We see that kids who were raised in two-parent homes are more likely to attend and graduate from college.
How does this pattern apply to other countries? Data show that in Sweden — a country with a dramatically different welfare regime than the United States — there’s also a very strong association with family structure and child outcomes. Kids raised in single-parent homes in Sweden are more likely to face higher odds of suicide and odds of drug addiction, and also more likely to be held back for a year in school.
And turning our gaze to other countries, we see there is also a link between education and family structure in much of Asia, much of Latin America and the Middle East as well. In many countries — Chile to Singapore — we find that kids raised in homes without their two parents are more likely to be held back in school, for instance. This is controlling for parents’ education and income.
So how do we understand what’s happening here? I will just say briefly that two parents on average have more time and attention to give to their kids and often more money to give to their kids. These families can draw on two networks of kin more effectively in raising their children. They can also give their kids more stability — if you’ve had kids or care for kids, you know they thrive on stable routines with stable caregivers.
And brings me to my final major point here, which is that I have seen more research on the impact not just on family structure for kids but also the impact of family stability for children. What we’re seeing is that kids are more likely to thrive in stable family contexts.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals seek to improve the health of children in countries across the globe, and what our research at World Family Map is suggesting is that there is a connection between family stability and child health for kids across much of the developing world.
For instance, we see that stunting is more common for kids in never-married or divorced families in much Latin America, Africa and Asia. Also, for the most serious outcome here, child mortality, we see that kids of divorced or unmarried-but-partnered families are at least 20 percent more likely to die compared to kids from stable, two-parent families.
So again what I am suggesting here is when you look at the parent ecology, that it’s not just the structure of the family that matters, it’s also the stability — and kids are more likely to flourish physically when they have the benefit of a stable, two-parent family context. And in terms of stability, we control our analyses for wealth … so we don’t think money is the primary story here…
I’d like to conclude with some good news.
The first point is that most children around the globe are being raised in a home with their two parents and often their extended kin. I think that’s one important piece of good news to know today.
A second point is that most citizens around the globe, as judged by World Values Survey, agree that kids need “a father and a mother to grow up happily.” So I think there’s a reservoir of support for the two-parent family among most of our global citizenry.
And the third point is that, when it comes to academic research, there is a recognition that kids are more likely to thrive, on average, in a stable, two-parent context. This quote from Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan gives you a sense of this perspective: She says, “A two-parent ideal would ensure that children have access to the time and money of two adults, provide some checks and balances to promote a quality of parenting, and the fact that both parents have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child, be willing to sacrifice for that child, and reduce the likelihood that either parent would abuse the child.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.” This is because the social and economic wealth of nations depend in no small part on the health of the family.
Families matter. Parents matter. In the face of tremendous change in the family, I think we shall come to see that the path towards continued social and economic and physical progress for the world’s children lies in part in protecting the intact family where it is currently strong and renewing the family where it’s fragile.
• W. Bradford Wilcox, Ph.D., is director of the National Marriage Project and associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. He is senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at American Enterprise Institute.
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