Beyond the Family
The Effect of the Family on Social Ills
Family North Carolina MagazineMay/June 2009
by Paul Brown
Opponents, even well-meaning ones, often portray strong-family advocates as being hard hearted. The advocates spend precious time and energy fighting for traditional family and marriage laws, the argument goes, instead of focusing on big-picture items such as poverty, crime and poor health.
Actually, the contrary is true. It’s family advocates who pursue a compassionate course, because divorce, alternative forms of marriage and families, out-of-wedlock child bearing and other family busters are major contributors to the very big-issue ills that opponents want society to solve. It’s like wanting to get rid of a swarm of mosquitoes without addressing the puddles of water all over the back yard.
Decades of research and the commonsense observations of professionals in a range of social service positions consistently make the point that stability in families would cut poverty, crime and other negative outcomes that harm adults and children alike. Strong family laws are likely to do more to stem the spread of poverty, reverse the prison-building boom and keep kids in school than many of the popular solutions currently being offered to policymakers. Indeed, government would be at its most compassionate (and its most effective) if it advanced policies that strengthened the traditional family.
Durham County’s chief District Court judge, Elaine M. Bushfan, sees the link between the shattered family structure and intractable social issues every day. As chief district court judge, Bushfan regularly sees defendants before her bench whose offenses can be traced to broken families. “I would say probably when you break it out by court, criminal court, you would see people from broken families over-represented,” the judge said.
Perhaps nowhere is the link between stable families and negative pathologies stronger than in the big-picture issue of poverty. A growing body of research shows that stable families tend to keep people out of grinding poverty. At the same time, family-friendly laws would have the additional good effect of giving the government more money to fight other social ills, according to a recent study by the Institute for American Values (IAV).1
Released last year and using very cautious methodology and estimates, that study shows that family fragmentation costs the United States at least $112 billion a year, or more than $1 trillion a decade. The impact on North Carolina’s treasury is nearly $1.33 billion a year, the IAV estimated.2 The estimates were based on “the simplifying and extremely cautious assumption that all of the taxpayer costs of divorce and unmarried childbearing stem solely from the negative effects family fragmentation has on poverty in female-headed households. We make this simplifying assumption because the effect of marriage on poverty has been established, is widely accepted, and can be reasonably well-quantified based on existing data.”3 Researchers reached the figure by counting lost federal income and Social Security and Medicare taxes; state and local taxes; and direct costs to taxpayers for programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, food stamps, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and justice programs.
The figure is likely to be much higher if family fragmentation has other negative consequences, the authors argued. For instance, if “family fragmentation increases the number of children who suffer from chronic illnesses, these additional costs to taxpayers would not be reflected in the estimates provided by this study,” according to the authors.4 North Carolina’s $1.33 billion could be put to good use this year, when Gov. Beverly Perdue and state lawmakers face a projected deficit of $3.4 billion for fiscal year 20092010, which begins in July. But it could be put to progressive use in any budget year. In past years, it could have helped retrain thousands of people who lost jobs when the manufacturing sector collapsed. In coming years, money saved from having fewer poor families could help North Carolina develop the high-tech and biotech sectors or to improve education in low-wealth counties.
Data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau make a similar link between broken families and impaired family finances. It reports that children in father-absent homes are five times more likely to be poor. In 2002, 7.8 percent of children in married-couple families were living in poverty, compared to 38.4 percent of children in female-householder families.5 This data suggest at least part of that poverty would be wiped out if North Carolina had policies that encouraged husband-wife households and aided couples headed toward divorce.
It is true that some traditional families are poor, and even well-off, two-parent households are forced to seek government assistance from time to time. And divorce and failed “living together” arrangements aren’t the only way families become single-parent ones. A spouse could die, for instance. Furthermore, the statistics should not necessarily equate to a condemnation of single parents. Many raise well-adjusted, successful youngsters. Yet poverty tends to stalk broken families. Family advocates see their work partly as trying to break the chain.
Other Social Issues
Poverty, of course, is just one big-picture issue. Shattered family bonds lead to a number of other social dysfunctions that cause suffering, such as violent crime, juvenile delinquency, social and mental pathologies and educational deficiencies, the research shows.
For Judge Bushfan, the issue is crime.
Crime. Bushfan sees it in the defendants that cycle through the courts. She said she doesn’t want to define “family” too narrowly. It could consist of an unmarried couple and their children, in her view, or an unmarried couple one of whom is not the biological parent. Still, male and female role models in the home are key. “It’s pretty simple,” she said. “The first laws you learn are from the household, from your parents. If they are law-abiding citizens, that’s what you’ll learn. And you get different aspects [of being law abiding] from the mother and the father. They communicate them differently. … Once you take one of them out of the home, the child will learn that aspect in some other way.”
Having fewer people in prison is surely a compassionate goal. Strong two-parent families are clearly an answer. Fatherless homes produce up to 70 percent of longterm prison inmates and 70 percent of adolescents charged with murder, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources.6 Additionaly, what can divert teen boys from the destructive lure of gangs, another compassionate aim? Bushfan said strong families are key. Gangs substitute for intact families, she said. “Love, loyalty, connectiveness … all those things are important to men.”
Teenage Pregnancy. Sparing young girls from the myriad downsides of early sex and pregnancy likely would qualify as a big issue. Strong-family advocates claim the more compassionate ground here, too. Bearing children at a young age in American culture makes it more likely that a girl will live in poverty. It can disrupt her life and education. Sexuality at younger ages increases the likelihood that a girl will contract sexually transmitted diseases, which result in sometimes awful health problems and can wreck her chances of having children.
Yet family structure is one of the most well documented environmental factors that push adolescent girls into early sexual activity, according to research done at Texas A&M University.7 Girls living apart from their fathers due to out-of-wedlock births or divorce are most likely to become sexually active, the research shows. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Waves I and II) found that female students in grades 7 through 12 who have a stepparent or divorced parents have an average of 1.39 and 1.29 sexual partners, respectively. Those living in intact married families averaged just 0.71 partners. Girls whose parents never married (0.88), and those in cohabiting families with one natural parent (1.07) or both natural parents (1.15) fell in between the two extremes.
STDs. Early sex, of course, happens in traditional families, too. But a greater predictor is a non-intact home. Laws that encourage strong family structures would save young women from early pregnancy and thus lives of poverty. Such laws would do a better job at protecting their healthand in the case of HIV/AIDS, potentially their lives. Policies that encourage sexual abstinence likely would reverse a troubling trend of women contracting the fatal disease in greater numbers. Women make up an increasing part of the epidemic, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1992, women accounted for an estimated 14 percent of adults and adolescents with AIDS nationally. By the end of 2005, the proportion had grown to 23 percent.8 African-American and Hispanic women are the hardest hit. And strong families would free tax dollars for other worthy causes. In light of the numbers, compassionate leaders would insist on policies that encourage sexual abstinence until marriage.
Academic Achievement. Similarly, data drawn from the National Longitudinal Study show that students who live with their married biological parents achieve the highest average combined grade point averagea score of 2.9in English and math. Students whose parents never married or who live with cohabiting adults only one of whom is a natural parent have the lowest GPA, an average 2.5. Slightly above that group are students living with stepparents, divorced parents or both unmarried biological parents (2.6).9 A researcher for the CDC found that divorce and parental separation increase the likelihood that adolescents will try drugs, but also the amount of drug use, intravenous use and addiction. Fourteen-year-olds whose parents divorced were nearly four times as likely to try illicit drugs. They were also twice as likely to use them when they reached adulthood.10
Like the rest of the nation, North Carolina has its hands filled with big issues. But contrary to the criticism that pro-family advocates receive, they have soft hearts when it comes to trying to lessen the suffering brought on by those issues. Their aim is to attack the problems, not just the symptoms.
If North Carolina wants to lessen povertya sensible and noble goal of any societyit should strengthen the family. If keeping kids in high school until graduation is a social good, research shows that having a Mom and a Dad is an effective way of achieving that good. If policy makers want to divert more residents from the dark horrors of costly prisons, then working with, not against, family advocates to increase the number of father-and-mother families is in the best interest of the state.
1. Benjamin Scafidi, principal investigator, The Taxpayer Cost of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and for All Fifth States. Georgia Family Council and Institute for American Values, 2008.
2. Ibid, Appendix 2.
3. Ibid., page 12. Italics are in the original.
4. Ibid., page 13. Italics are in the original.
5. U.S. Census Bureau, Children’s Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2002, P200-547, Table C8. Washington D.C.: GPO, 2003.
6. See http://www.dhr.state.al.us/page.asp?pageid=408.
7. Patricia Goodson, Alexandra Evans, and Elizabeth Edmundson, Female Adolescents and Onset of Sexual Intercourse: A Theory-Based Review of Research from 1984 to 1994, Journal of Adolescent Health 21 (1997): 147-156.
8. CDC. HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, 2005. Vol. 17. Rev ed. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC: 2007:146. Accessed June 28, 2007.
9. Patrick Fagan, Kirk A. Johnson and Jonathan Butcher, A Portrait of Family and Religion in America: Key Outcomes for the Common Good, The Heritage Foundation, 2006.
10 Shanta R. Dube, "Childhood Abuse, Neglect, and Household Dysfunction and the Risk of Illicit Drug Use: The Adverse Experiences Study," Pediatrics 111 (2003): 564-572.
Paul Brown is a freelance writer with over 30 years of journalistic experience. For a footnoted version of this article, please visit ncfamily.org.
Copyright © 2009. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.