The children of unmarried mothers do much worse in school and in life, just as Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted in his 1965 report on the black family, conclude Sarah McLanahn and Christopher Jencks in Education Next. Many more children — especially those with less-educated mothers — are growing up in single-parent families.
Forty percent of families with children headed by an unmarried mother live in poverty, they write in Education Next. That compares to 8 percent of families with children headed by a married couple. “Among blacks, the rates were 46 percent in single-mother families and 12 percent in married-parent families. Among Hispanics, the figures were 47 percent and 18 percent, and among whites the rates were 32 percent and 4 percent, respectively.”
In 1960, 95 percent of single mothers had been married; by 2013, only half of all single mothers had ever been married. “The shift to never-married motherhood has probably weakened the economic and emotional ties between children and their absent fathers.”
Growing up with only one biological parent reduces a child’s chances of graduating from high school by about 40 percent, though it doesn’t appear to affect test scores.
. . . a father’s absence increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule breaking, delinquency, and illegal drug use. . . . Thus it appears that a father’s absence lowers children’s educational attainment not by altering their scores on cognitive tests but by disrupting their social and emotional adjustment and reducing their ability or willingness to exercise self-control. The effects of growing up without both parents on aggression, rule breaking, and delinquency are also larger for boys than for girls.
Unmarried mothers often have “problems that marriage cannot solve” and mates with serious problems of their own, McLanahan and Jencks write. Persuading women to delay motherhood — and improving “the economic prospects of their prospective husbands” — would give more children “the benefits that flow from a stable home,” they write. But how?
Moynihan was shocked by the fact that nearly a quarter of black families were headed by a single mother. Since 1965, the percentage of children living with an unmarried parent has gone up from 24 to 50 percent for blacks and from 3 to 19 percent for whites.