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Lois M. Collins: Dwindling percentage of intact families poses grave threat to children's futures

Utah scores high in group's index of family belonging

Published: Friday, Nov. 18 2011 12:11 a.m. MST

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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.

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