Think about the children in the U.S. What percentage of them do you think are living with two parents in their first marriage?
If you guessed that fewer than half are, you are correct. The living arrangements of today’s children are quite varied. Here are the percentages of children living in different family arrangements:
46% living with 2 parents in their first marriage
26% living with a single parent
15% living with 2 remarried parents
7% living with cohabiting parents
5% living with no parents (grandparents, other relatives, non-relatives, foster care)
The diversity of families was described in a new report, “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All,” in a chapter on the rise of the unmarried majority. The report documents the promotion of the notion of “marriage fundamentalism”: “the idea that a family composed of a man and a woman in their first marriage is ‘the best’ or ‘ideal’ type of family – especially for children.” It is a claim that extols one kind of family and stigmatizes and shames every other kind – that is, the kinds of families in which the majority of children in the U.S. are living.
The marriage fundamentalists claim to have science on their side, but “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism” debunks that. I’ve been critiquing that claim, too.
Writings by marriage fundamentalists sometimes allude to something very basic, maybe even universal, about marriage and the families headed by married parents. For example, the Family Research Council described marriage as “the foundation of civilization, the seedbed of virtue, and the wellspring of society.” I looked into those kinds of claims when I was researching Singled Out and discovered that historians and anthropologists weren’t biting.
That’s what journalist Dani McClain, author of We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, found, too:
“A body of research has determined that Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries, with their focus on the nuclear family, bring up children in what anthropologist David Lancy has called “a departure from all other human culture.” Most humans across time and space are “cooperative breeders” and depend on adult women and older children in the extended family and community to care for the young.”
It is not just the claims of the marriage fundamentalists that are wrong. Their language is unfortunate, too. It can be stigmatizing (as, for example, when single-parent families are described as “broken”). It can also be misleading (e.g., “absentee father”). In an essay, McClain also notes that in some important ways, single parents are not so single:
“In 2013, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention corrected the misconception that black men disproportionately shirk their fatherly duties. Instead, black men are generally more likely than men of other races to read to, feed, bathe, and play with their young children on a daily basis, whether they live in the same home as the child or not. Relying on nonmarital birthrates to tell a story about parental involvement has built a false narrative. Just because a father isn’t married to his child’s mother doesn’t mean he’s an absent dad.”
According to the marriage fundamentalists, marriage isn’t just for parents who want to raise children in the supposedly ideal family form, it is also a solution to poverty. Dani McClain debunks that, too:
“Those who promote marriage as social policy want us to believe that getting married will automatically lift poor people out of poverty. But poor plus poor does not somehow equal middle class…
“Lost in the conversation is the impact that low-wage work has on black families. The question shouldn’t be whether we can put together two measly paychecks, but whether we as individuals can get paid a fair wage for the work that we do.”
It is true that in the U.S., single-parent families are more likely to be poor than married-parent families. But that is not inevitable:
“Social policies such as paid parental leave, universal child care, and universal health care would go a long way to alleviate the financial pressures that unmarried moms face. This kind of government intervention is why a single mother and her child in Denmark are no more likely to be poor than a married mother and her child.”
One of the most important goals of the relentless promotion and celebration of married people and their families, and the stigmatizing of single people and their families, is to reverse the decline of marriage. At that, the marriage fundamentalists have failed completely. In the U.S. and many other nations around the world, more and more people are living single and creating families outside of the nuclear-family mold.