Written by Jason Williams
When your boat is sinking, bailing water is not a long-term solution. At some point you have to address the hole. Because of family instability, however, America’s children are going under, and fast. And it’s not for lack of a big enough bucket.
Causes who do what they do “for the children,” addressing such issues as hunger, poverty, abuse and education, comprise about 3% of all registered US non-profits, and that’s not counting religious organizations or children’s medical charities. Three percent may not seem like much but, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, it amounts to 50,000 non-profits, with total assets of about $21 billion.
With resources like that, you’d think every child in America lived in a happy and healthy stable environment. The fact is, however, that money and awareness are not a panacea for societal ills. While these groups have good intentions and do lots of good things, at the end of the day they’re a little too short-sighted. Their hearts are in the right place, but their efforts are behind the curve. The only real solution to the suffering of America’s children is to focus on the cause, not the effects. A good first step is reducing the number of fractured families caused by unnecessary divorce.
Let me explain, and let’s start with a biggie — child poverty. In his report “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” Robert Rector finds that a child’s probability of living in poverty is reduced by 82% when he is raised in a married family and that “71% of poor families with children are headed by single parents.” Though it’s not clear how many are single family households with out-of-wedlock births versus divorced households, marriage obviously decreases the likelihood of poverty across the board, regardless of education or other factors.
Next up, child abuse. According to Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, children living with their mother and her boyfriend are eleven times more likely to be abused and six times more likely to be neglected than children living with their married biological parents. Wilcox asserts that a major factor in children being less “likely to thrive and to simply survive” is family instability that comes from living in a home where the adult relationship lacks the “legal, social, and moral status and guidance” of marriage.
And then there’s child hunger. In America, the problem isn’t so much a lack of food but a lack of nutritious food, and the typical explanation is that people aren’t eating the right food because they can’t afford it. In a study from the June 2007 Journal of Nutrition , the authors found that divorced and separated men and women are most likely to report an inability to afford nutritious food and that separated women are the least able to afford it. It stands to reason that this malnutrition is being passed on to their children.
Finally, there’s educational attainment. This topic seems to be a favorite lately, with everything from literacy to bullying to the drop-out rate. And with the tremendous amount of resources dedicated to this campaign, it stands to reason that it would be successful and maybe even mitigate some of the other problems through the power of knowledge. It turns out, not so much.
Again, the research demonstrates the myriad educational benefits of growing up in an intact family, including involvement in literacy activities early on, better performance in basic subjects, decreased likelihood of exhibiting antisocial behavior or behaving disruptively in class, and increased probability of graduating high school and going on to college. Furthermore, the Journal of Marriage and Family found that children of single or divorcing parents grew slower academically than children with married parents or step-parents.
It would be naïve to assert that these problems would instantly disappear if families just stayed together, but it’s equally naïve to ignore the statistical data that overwhelmingly points to the root cause of the overwhelming majority of these devastating issues: family instability. Marriages dysfunctional enough to warrant divorce do exist, but they are in the minority. Most often the declared reason for divorce is “incompatibility,” “irreconcilable differences,” or some other legalese for just not wanting to be married anymore. When only two lives are directly impacted, it’s the business of two consenting adults. But when children are thrust into the frightening, uncertain wasteland of parental divorce, it becomes the business of 50,000 non-profits and $21 billion that can’t hope to replace the warmth, love, and security of a stable home regardless of great intentions. And this is just the non-profits, excluding the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars that get thrown at poverty and the other symptoms of family instability.
Ultimately, these well-meaning child-focused organizations — and government spending — are like pain relievers. You have a headache, your back hurts, you’re cramping, whatever…there’s a pill for it. You take the pill, the pain goes away for a while. The underlying condition is there, but you’re numb to it so you can get on with your daily life. Sometimes, however, you get desensitized to it, so you either up the dose or find a new fix, and you may even become reliant. By treating the effects of fractured families instead of the cause, we desensitize ourselves so we can feel good even though the problem is still there. Necessary as each may be, the greatest gift we can give the suffering children of America isn’t money, protection, food, or an education. It’s a stable family with two married parents.