Society wedded to fallacies on families

The Australian 23 August 2014
Kay Hymowitz has seen this all before. A renowned family scholar with New York’s Manhattan Institute, she’s spending this weekend on the Gold Coast, speaking about such matters at Consilium, the Centre for Independent Studies’ elite gathering of leaders from business, finance, academe, politics and community organisations.

Hymowitz reports a sense of deja vu witnessing the struggle Australia is having in coming to terms with the essential truth about family life: namely that children do better with two parents, particularly married parents.

While Australian public discourse retains the comforting fantasy that all families are equally good for children, the US has faced up to the fact growing up in a single-parent home, step-family or with unmarried parents puts children at risk.

These children are less likely than children in stable traditional families to do well in school, suffer more mental health and behavioural problems, and are likelier to be abused and become single parents themselves.

In the US it took many decades of fierce public debate before this reality sunk in. Fifty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan came under fire for suggesting that the growth of single mothers in black communities was largely responsible for the “tangle of pathology” contributing to their disadvantage. “A national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure,” concluded the Moynihan report, which was promptly charged with “blaming the victim”. Academics stepped in to challenge its statistics and Moynihan was attacked for “subtle racism”.

Then followed what Hymowitz calls “40-plus years of lies”, downplaying the importance of father absence in black families. Yet during the next three decades most social scientists, decision-makers and politicians took note of the emerging research providing solid evidence that children with two married parents are far likelier to flourish. By 1994 president Bill Clinton, who was reared by a single mother, was declaring in his State of the Union address: “We cannot renew our country when, within a decade, more than half of our children will be born into families where there is no marriage.”

Barack Obama, also the product of a single-parent family, has been outspoken about the problems facing the black community, in which 70 per cent of children are born to unmarried mothers.

“We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison,” he has said. “They are more likely to have behavioural problems, or run away from home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”single parents australia

These statistics, which seem to have escaped so many of our blinkered local commentators, come from incontrovertible international evidence from European countries and Australia as well as the US.

“The non-marital birth and divorce rate started climbing from the 1960s and by the 90s many countries had acquired large-scale data sets like the US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that allowed them to compare children growing up in different types of families,” says Hymowitz, who will be presenting some of this data at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas next Sunday.

In her book Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, Hymowitz explains the pivotal role played by groundbreaking research from Princeton sociology professor Sara McLanahan. A divorced mother herself, McLanahan was shocked how little evidence underpinned the fierce debate over the Moynihan report. During the next decade she analysed whatever numbers she could find and discovered children in single-parent homes were not doing as well as children from two-parent homes on many measures.

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s she presented her emerging findings over strenuous protests from feminists, academics and the mainstream media. In 1994 she published, with Gary Sandfur, her book Growing Up with a Single Parent, which proved a game changer.

“It was a turning point. One by one, leading family researchers gradually came around, concluding that McLanahan — and perhaps even Moynihan — was right,” reports Hymowitz.

These results apply not only to the US where many single-parent families are black or Hispanic and include many teenage mothers, but also to European countries that have more adult single mothers and better welfare support for lone parents. Although critics of this type of research often argue the difference between outcomes for children are mainly due to poverty, sophisticated statistical analysis has shown that’s only part of the story. Says Hymowitz: “Researchers have tried to figure out whether it was poverty rather than family structure that was causing kids’ problems. That’s not what they found. Even when kids were growing up in comfortable circumstances, their outcomes were worse than their peers with married parents. Two hands are better than one — a single parent just can’t bring the same time or energy to the complicated enterprise that is contemporary parenting. But that’s not the whole story. A young single parent generally wants a new partner and perhaps more children. That’s understandable, but new boyfriends, husbands and half-siblings require children to readjust over and over and they may well be losing contact with their own fathers. All of it adds up to a childhood of instability and loss with lifelong ­consequences.”

The real surprise that emerged from all this research was that children of separated mothers who remarried didn’t fare any better, even though these families were less likely to be in poverty. Children in step-families are just as much at risk of a range of adverse outcomes as children in single-parent homes.

“That was unexpected, since it was assumed that the improved fin­ancial circumstances of these families would make a difference. Yet these children were just as much at risk as those in sole-parent families of problems such as emotional and behavioural difficulties, poor academic performance, leaving home early and dropping out of school,” says Bryan Rodgers, professor of family health and wellbeing at the Australian National University, our key researcher in this area. His 2001 book, Children in Changing Families (with Jan Pryor), reviewed more than 400 studies comparing outcomes for children in different family structures.

The final piece of the puzzle came with recent work in the US, Britain, Europe and Australia, comparing children with cohabiting and married parents. It turns out that marriage matters. The instability of defacto relationships means many children with unmarried parents end up in lone-parent families.

Using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian children, Lixia Qu and Ruth Weston from the Australian Institute of Family Studies found young families with cohabiting parents were nearly three times likelier to break up within four years than married families: 19 per cent of the cohabiting-parent families compared with 7 per cent of the marrieds separated during that time. The same researchers showed children in cohabiting families lagged behind children with married parents in overall socio-emotional and general development, showed poorer learning and more conduct problems, and experienced poorer parenting.

Of course, there are huge numbers of children thriving in families with unmarried parents, just as many single mothers do a splendid job, against the odds, providing an excellent, stable upbringing for their children. Whenever this issue is raised in Australia there’s an outcry from people who have been brought up by wonderful single mothers outraged at any suggestion that children in single-parent families don’t do so well.

What we are talking about here is simply an increased risk that children will have mental health problems, or not do as well at school, or be subjected to more abuse. The chance is usually small that children in these families suffer these problems, yet when increasing numbers of children end up being reared in such families, the cost to society is huge.

“What is a matter of private concern when it is on a small scale becomes a matter of public concern when it reaches epidemic proportions,” British family law judge Paul Coleridge argued before his recent retirement, speaking out about the “misery” of family breakdown. He challenged the common notion that it made no difference whether parents cohabited or married. “One (arrangement) tends to last and the other doesn’t,’’ he said, quoting British research suggesting children with unmarried parents were twice as likely to suffer a family break-up as those with married parents.

He makes an important point — it should be a matter of public concern when more than one in three Australian children is now born to single or unmarried parents. Divorce is no longer the major reason kids are being reared in single-parent homes; most end up that way because women have children on their own or in unstable defacto relationships. And these are mainly women who can’t afford to rear these children, hence they end up growing up in poverty. That was the fascinating twist to Bob Hawke’s famous election pledge that no child would live in poverty by 1990. Hawke’s promise fell in a heap because that was the decade when the shift towards the current family patterns really started to kick in — the 90s saw a staggering 70 per cent increase in the ex-nuptial birthrate.

While most well-educated women are now delaying marriage but still tying the knot before they have children, it’s mainly less educated women who turn their back on marriage and have children on their own or in defacto relationships, a choice that on the evidence greatly disadvantages their children. Degree-qualified women are now the group likeliest to be married in all age groups from 30 to 44, according to research from Genevieve Heard, from the Centre of Population and Urban Research at Monash University. “It is women from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who are tending to delay marriage and child rearing,” Heard says.

“The less educated women are less likely to marry at all, but are having more children and having them earlier. They are much more likely to end up as lone parents.”

Hymowitz’s best-known work has focused on this “marriage gap”, which she argues is increasing the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

“The marriage gap greatly exacerbates income inequality and reduces the chances these families will make it out of poverty. Educated parents bring all sorts of advantages to their child rearing: money, skills, stable neighbourhoods and better schools.

Add to that the enormous advantage of a second parent and the stability that marriage tends to bring, and with few exceptions these kids have it made. The child from a more disadvantaged background has a far greater chance of overcoming challenges when she has two parents in a stable relationship. Instead, these days, she’s usually hit with a double whammy of low income and a single overstressed parent.”

Of course, there are well-­educated people who buck these trends — professional women having children on their own, or affluent defacto couples who rear happy children in stable relationships — and their children are likely to do just fine. But the ­choices they make don’t pan out nearly as well for sole families who can’t afford these children or for the society that supports them.

Margaret Whitlam nailed the problem in a television interview she conducted with Germaine Greer. When Greer confessed she was considering having a child on her own, Whitlam dismissed that as a selfish notion: “It may be all right for people who are well known and who have position and who can organise themselves … but it’s not OK for everybody.”

So it is all very well for the good folk on Offspring, these families filled with doctors and other professionals, to make fun of marriage. But consider the impact on the many thousands of viewers who can ill afford to follow their cheerful embrace of dysfunctional families. In a recent episode, Jimmy Proudfoot is trying to persuade his partner, Zara, who is pregnant with his second child, to marry him. She fobs him off, saying she doesn’t believe in that “inherited garbage” and jokes they are already bound together by children and real estate. Debra Oswald, creator and head writer of Offspring, is the partner of Sydney ABC radio personality Richard Glover, whose newspaper columns often proudly boast of their 32-year unmarried union, which has raised two sons. When I wrote about this topic some time ago, Glover took me on. “Do our children miss out on anything?” he wrote. “Well, yes, Bettina. Principally, I think, they miss out on vases,” says the well-known, well-positioned journalist, referring to his family’s lack of wedding presents.

Every year in Australia there are conferences on child abuse and papers published. Academics and child-protection officers ponder the whys and wherefores of this scourge that costs our country more than $2 billion a year. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has noted that “child abuse in lone-parent families is about 2½ times higher than would be expected given the number of children living in such families”.

Turn on the ABC news and every few days there’s another report on institutional child sexual abuse. Yet the chances of a child being abused by a priest or YMCA childcare worker are far less when compared with the numbers of children at risk from Mum’s boyfriend. Abuse in family situations has always posed the greatest risk to children, and strangers entering single-parent families are pushing that sky high.

A report by Jeremy Sammut from the Centre for Independent Studies reviewed more than 70 research studies to provide overwhelming evidence that girls were sexually abused by “step­fathers” — partners of their single, remarried or repartnered mothers — at up to 20 times the rate of abuse by biological fathers.

For all the talk of homelessness, how rarely we hear mention of the fact conflict in families, particularly step-families, is a major cause of the 20,000 to 25,000 youth not living with their families.

What about the education specialists? There’s rarely any mention in education circles of the disruptive effects on education of family break-up. Australian Bureau of Statistics analysis shows that for 18 to 24-year-olds, 62 per cent of those whose parents separate during their childhood completed Year 12 compared with 77 per cent of those whose parents did not.

Family type is one of the most important factors determining the mental health of children, according to the Western Australian Child Health Survey, which followed 2790 children from ages 4 to 16. When they announced this finding the researchers told me they shuddered when they received a message saying I had called — they’d hoped this issue would slip under the media radar.

So what’s the explanation of our country’s determination to keep its head in the sand? Don Edgar, founding director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, says he often struck resistance to the idea that marriage made a difference to children’s wellbeing.

“The old Labor-leftie group have a residual distrust of the ‘bourgeois’ notion of marriage and family. They remain determined to embrace the new diversity of family forms and just don’t want to hear that a committed marriage might be better for children than other structures,” he says.

This blinkered promotion of family diversity remains hugely influential, with any challenge to its benefits firmly buried or shouted down. “Family structure is one of the major issues diminishing the lives of many Australian children. But sadly we have a long way to go before that truth finds its rightful place on the public agenda,” concludes Edgar.

Bettina Arndt is a social commentator and online dating coach.


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