The Decade in Review – and Why Our Children Are Suffering

January 9, 2020 The Topic: The Decade in Review—and Why Our Children Are SufferingThe News Story: How the Definition of an American Family Has ChangedThe New Research: Children in Broken Homes—Twenty More Years of ResearchThe News Story: How the Definition of an American Family Has Changed A year-end Wall Street Journal story focused on how “The transformation of the American family deepened over the past decade, as an increasingly diverse array of arrangements replaced the married-with-children paradigm.” “Marriage is playing a smaller role within families,” the story continued, with fewer people marrying at all, more people delaying marriage, cohabitation on the rise, and divorce still prevalent. The old model of father-breadwinner/mother-homemaker is out, and in its place is a plethora of new arrangements. And while some of the changes the story highlights seem positive—multigenerational households are on the rise, for example—the clear losers in this picture of declining marriage are the children. “In 2017,” reports the story, “one in four parents who lived with a child was unmarried, up from one in 10 in 1968.” And while the Wall Street Journal reports this trend dispassionately, as one more interesting sociological blip on the radar, decades of research demonstrate that when the married-biological-parent model fails, children suffer. (Source: Ellen Byron, “How the Definition of an American Family Has Changed,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 15, 2019.) The New Research: Children in Broken Homes—Twenty More Years of Research A quarter century ago, the flagship journal Social Forces published a landmark 1994 study analyzing the well-being of children living in different kinds of family structure. Now Elizabeth Thomson and Sara McLanahan, two of the authors of that original study, have published a retrospective commentary highlighting “the article’s popularity as a referent point for subsequent research” and underscoring the degree to which “subsequent research [has] confirmed many of [their] findings.” Using nationally representative data, the original 1994 study established that children living with married biological parents enjoyed significant advantages in academic performance and socio-emotional development over children living with stepparents, cohabiting parents, divorced single mothers, and never-married single mothers. This original study traced a large fraction of this advantage to differences in household income, a smaller fraction to differences in parenting practices. In the decades since the publication of the original study, researchers have confirmed the overall pattern it uncovered. These newer studies have, in fact, uncovered considerable evidence discrediting progressives’ claims that cohabitation is a perfectly functional replacement for traditional marriage. As Thomson and McClanahan remark, “The new research has show
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