We make a big fuss about mothers in our culture. Think of how often politicians offer sympathy to “heroic” single moms who are doing such an amazing job. Many do, and of course, their lives are extremely hard and they deserve sympathy. As a mother of three sons, I cannot imagine how I would have managed alone. That much having been said, this … is a good time to remember that fathers are crucial to their children’s happiness and success.
Here is a small sample of what good husbands/fathers do for their relations: 1) Their wives are healthier, wealthier and happier than single or divorced women; 2) their daughters are less likely to have eating disorders, be dissatisfied with their appearance, have behavior problems, have a child out of wedlock or suffer from depression; 3) their sons are less likely to drop out of high school, get in trouble with the law or drink to excess.
Fathers perform this magic and more — but the key is marriage. The faithful bond between spouses transforms guys into men who earn a lot more money, keep their children safe and happy and uphold neighborhoods and communities.
The link between marriage and children’s welfare has been well-documented for decades — but the resistance to it is just as striking. Feminists have made liberals nervous about openly promoting marriage. Feminist Amanda Marcotte, for example, disdains any talk of intact families as an attempt to “restore the patriarchy to a perceived 1950s heyday,” and Judith Stacey is alarmed by any attempt to restore “nuclear family hegemony.”
Some of the most compelling studies about the effects of family dissolution have been done by liberal and center-left scholars. Robert D. Putnam, Ron Haskins, Isabel Sawhill, Sara McLanahan, Andrew Cherlin and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, among many others, have documented the heartbreaking consequences of our national retreat from marriage. Yet some shrink from recommending the simple steps that will ensure a decent life for kids. Feminists have so effectively defamed marriage that many liberals find they can’t speak about families without discomfort. Not for themselves, mind you. College-educated Americans are getting married at nearly the rates they did in the 1950s. But the opinion leaders among them clam up when it comes to encouraging others to follow the same life script.
It isn’t just the intellectuals; it’s the entire upper class in America (by which I mean the college-educated upper third of the population). We would at least begin to tackle many of our most intractable social problems, including rising income inequality, the opioid crisis and men’s increasing detachment from the workforce, if, in Charles Murrray’s deathless formulation, “elites would simply preach what they practice.”
The University of Virginia’s W. Bradford Wilcox and the Institute for Family Studies are less inhibited about recommending life decisions that will conduce to happiness and human flourishing. The latest IFS paper examines how millennials are doing on what Haskins and Sawhill have labeled the “success sequence.” What is the sequence? It’s the same three things that the Annie E. Casey Foundation noted back in the 1990s — finish high school, get a full-time job (any job) and wait to be married before having your first child.
Among adults 28 to 34 years old who followed all three steps of the success sequence, 97 percent were not poor, and 86 percent had family incomes in the middle or top third. Among minorities, 76 percent of African-American and 81 percent of Hispanic young adults who married first are in the middle or upper third of the income distribution, as are 87 percent of whites. Among those who followed all three steps of the sequence, 84 percent of African-Americans, 84 percent of Hispanics and 90 percent of whites wound up in the middle or upper end of the income distribution.
By contrast, only 43 percent of African Americans, 60 percent of Hispanics and 64 percent of whites reach this income level if they missed one or two steps.
The worrying news is that 55 percent of millennials have chosen to have babies before marrying, setting in train a life that is much less likely to be secure or happy. Forty-seven percent of those who had a baby first are in the lower third of income, and 53 percent who followed none of the three success sequence steps are living in poverty.
It isn’t just about money, of course. The most important benefits of fatherhood are psychic and emotional. But marriage is key to all, and we desperately need to fix this.