Expert: Decline of Marriage Leads to Bad Outcomes for Children, Adults

National Marriage Project director calls for return to stable marriages

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W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, called Tuesday for a renewed commitment to fatherhood and marriage in America to curb the decline of stable, intact families.

Wilcox spoke at the Heritage Foundation about the array of social science research supporting the positive impacts of fatherhood on men and children in his new book Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives.

Men in residential marriages, on average, have lower levels of testosterone—which in high amounts is linked to aggression and infidelity—earn more than their counterparts without children, and are less likely to be depressed, Wilcox said.

Children in turn benefit from the influence of fathers in the home, according to the research compiled by Wilcox.

Sons who have quality relationships with their fathers are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior, on average, and daughters with the same relationships are about half as likely to become pregnant as teenagers, compared to girls raised by single mothers or who have poor relationships with their fathers.

That does not mean "exceptions" do not exist, Wilcox said.

"I was raised by a single mom. I think I turned out OK," he said.

Yet "on average, fatherhood is a transformative experience for men, and, on average, kids are more likely to benefit when they have their father in the home," he added.

The share of children born to moderately educated mothers outside of marriage rose to 44 percent by the late 2000s, compared to just 13 percent in the 1980s, according to the National Marriage Project.

Conversely, only 6 percent of highly educated mothers’ children were born out of marriage by the late 2000s, suggesting that the drop in marriage rates has exacerbated inequality.

Wilcox pointed to the "capstone" idea of marriage that prioritizes personal fulfillment and financial status and tends to result in delayed marriages as a potential cause of the decline in marriage rates, as well as cultural cues imparted by celebrities. Actress Jennifer Aniston once asserted that "women are realizing it more and more knowing that they don't have to settle with a man just to have that child."

"This message that fathers and marriage are not important has not been lost among today’s young adults," Wilcox said.

"There’s just one problem with the idea that any family structure is as good as any other—it’s not true," Wilcox said.

Wilcox proposed legislative tweaks such as eliminating the marriage tax penalty for low-income couples and tripling the tax credit for children under age three, but marriage advocates must also craft better narratives in Hollywood and the media, he said.

Both moms and dads discipline their kids in distinct and mutually beneficial ways on average, and they have the opportunity to succeed as a result of the two different approaches, he said.

"Conservatives will make the argument that it’s all about family structure and marriage. It’s not just about family structure," he said. "It’s about fathers engaging their kids."

Daniel Wiser   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Daniel Wiser is an assistant editor of National Affairs. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2013, where he studied Journalism and Political Science and was the State & National Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. He hails from Waxhaw, N.C., and currently lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @TheWiserChoice.