The United States has the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent homes, according to a Pew Research study published last week.
The report analyzed people’s living arrangements—single-parent, two-parent, polygamous, extended family, or couple only—by age and religion in 130 countries. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of U.S. children live with one parent and no other adults, compared to the global average of 7 percent. Children in single-parent households make up just 3 percent of children in China, 4 percent in Nigeria, and 5 percent in India. Rates for Western countries are higher: 21 percent of children in the United Kingdom, 16 percent in France, and 15 percent in Canada live in single-parent households.
The difference results in part from a higher rate of extended family homes in certain countries around the world. Almost 40 percent of children globally live with extended family members, compared to just 8 percent of U.S. children. This means that children in other countries still might not live with both parents, but they are living with grandparents or aunts. Abortion also plays a role in countries such as China, where it is illegal for a woman to have a child out of wedlock.
The latest Pew data didn’t include children growing up in a household with unmarried parents or an unmarried parent and his or her significant other. A 2018 Pew study found nearly 1 in 3 U.S. children live with unmarried parents, and that number is growing year over year. The gold standard—two parents in their first marriage—is declining even faster, with only 46 percent of children living in such arrangements in 2014, compared to 73 percent in 1960.
When faced with such data, secular researchers are often hesitant to ask the next logical question: So what?
Harvard University postdoctoral fellow Christina Cross attempted an answer earlier this month in an editorial in The New York Times titled “The myth of the two-parent home.” She acknowledged the increasing rates of broken families but argued her research showed family structure is an overblown explanation for societal ills, especially when used to explain socioeconomic disparities among African Americans.
“I found that living apart from a biological parent does not carry the same cost for black youths as for their white peers, and being raised in a two-parent family is not equally beneficial,” Cross wrote.
Instead, she put forward the idea that providing access to resources and fighting structural barriers such as housing segregation and employment discrimination would do more for black children than promoting marriage and family stability.
But critics contend children need not only resources but also the stability and structure of family life. W. Bradford Wilcox, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and director of the National Marriage Project, and Ian Rowe, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called Cross’ reasoning an example of “family structure denialism” in a rebuttal published last week.
Wilcox and Rowe noted recent studies linked a breakdown in family structure with behavioral struggles among disadvantaged boys, racial inequality in poverty and affluence, and neighborhood rates of economic mobility and incarceration.
Christians today “need to go beyond lamenting the state of the family to actually doing something to help married people,” said John Stonestreet, the president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
He highlighted the work of Communio, a privately funded organization that equips churches to strengthen marriages and families in their communities. Communio’s recent three-year initiative in Jacksonville, Fla., coincided with a 24 percent drop in the divorce rate. The group just announced the launch of a three-year initiative in Denver.
“Strengthening marriage and the family is a task God has assigned to the church,” Stonestreet said on his podcast Breakpoint. “Delegating that task to any other institution is not only a dereliction of duty, it’s a failing proposition.”