WASHINGTON — By age 17, fewer than half of American teens live in homes that include both biological parents, married to each other. And that portends grave problems for not only the children who are not, but for the country as a whole.

The implications stretch from families, churches and schools to the marketplace and government. That's the theme of the second annual "Index of Family Belonging and Rejection," released Thursday by the Family Research Council's Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI).

The "belonging" and "rejection" scores were determined by parental action: "Whether they marry and belong to each other or whether they reject one another through divorce or otherwise." It's important, the group noted, because family structure influences all aspects of a child's future, including education attainment and whether he or she will live in poverty or have children out of wedlock. Step-families don't offer the same benefits, it said.

Just 45.8 percent of kids at age 17 are in intact married families, said Patrick Fagan, senior fellow and director of MARRI, during a national news conference announcing the findings Thursday.

He said the strongest states were Minnesota, followed so closely by Utah that the difference was not statistically significant, then New Jersey. Coming in last were Mississippi, New Mexico and Nevada. Washington, DC, while not a state, was singled out for an index so "pathologically low" and a "performance so dismal," it was noteworthy, the report said. DC's belonging index was 18.6 percent, almost half as low as the worst-ranked state, Mississippi, at 34 percent.

"Most fathers and mothers cannot stand each other enough" to raise the children they have together, said Fagan. "We have never faced anything like this in human history so we're all learning how to grapple and turn this around."

He called on government to gather and publicize data on the links between family living arrangement and youth development, and other links between family characteristics and how they function and to enact policies that ensure those in need do not have unintended consequences that create moral hazard and encourage the formation of more high-risk families."

When marriages fall apart or don't occur, children are much more likely to live in poverty and to have children out of wedlock, the report found. On the other hand, an intact married family is strongly linked to better high school graduation rates, although the amount of money spent by government on promoting graduation has "diminishing returns." Family structure, Fagan said, has more impact on educational outcomes than that government spending does.

As they looked at indicators, said Nick Zill, a Washington, DC-based consulting psychologist and researcher, they found huge variations in wellbeing across states. In Wisconsin, for example, 91 percent of students graduate from high school, while in Nevada, just 66 percent do. It is not, as some claim, the "presidential politics of a state" that matters. Minnesota is a blue state, and North Dakota is red, but both do well in child wellbeing measures. Maryland is blue, Virginia red and both do moderately well. And race and ethnicity alone don't tell the story of child wellbeing, either. Appalachia, for instance, scores poorly and is predominantly white.

Low skills, on the other hand, make a difference. And the higher the family stability indicators, the better off a child is going to be, Zill said.

The dominant issue in education today is the educational achievement gap between minority and white children and between rich and poor children, said David Armor, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University. He said the report matches his own recent research on family and education. He blamed the achievement gaps on family risk factors, including low educational attainment by parents, income, family structure, the parent's own cognitive skills and parenting behaviors in terms of nurturing and instructing, Income's impact comes because parents with more money "can have the luxury to spend more time and more money on certain educational aids like books," he said.

The parent is the primary teacher until age 3. Some developmental experts believe, he noted, that the differences you can see by age 3 tend to be perpetuated across the school years. So those three years of nurturing matter terribly.

Two-parent families have an advantage against one-parent families, Armor said, in terms of more money and more time. "It's almost a simple human capital problem." Nurturing deficits are less clear, but it's likely divorce or being an over-stressed single mom takes a toll.

The most intact marriages were among Asian couples, then whites, Hispanics, multi-racial, American Indian and African-American, said Fagan, who co-wrote the study with Zill.

"With out-of-wedlock birthrates now above 40 percent, declining marriage rates and very high divorce rates, it seems safe to predict that the Index of Rejection will continue to mount," the two said in a statement accompanying the report.

35 comments on this story

Pat Ware, former executive director of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, was for many years a divorced single mom. She said she placed herself among the poorest black families to try to figure out why they lagged others. Often, she said, she found they had no hope for significant change in their own futures. But all families have the same dreams for their babies: They told her they wanted good health, good education, a great job, to see them married and having children and a nice home. She was puzzled by the marriage part, she said, because so many of the moms were not themselves married. "They knew instinctively there was something about marriage instead of living together," she said.

The challenge is getting "from where they are and the high probability of them repeating our mistakes to this vision we have for them," Ware said, adding that many organizations are tackling that.

Still, Fagan said that most of the government's policy to try to solve problems is aimed at broken families, instead of bolstering intact two-parent families.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com Twitter: Loisco