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Christopher A. Brown Headshot

It Takes a Married Village to Raise a Child

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As the nation continues to mark the 50-year anniversary of the War on Poverty, I continue to reflect on whether we've done everything we can to give our nation's children every chance to successfully move out poverty or avoid it in the first place.

As an anthropologist, I tend to view things from a cultural perspective. As an applied anthropologist (one who was trained to help solve social problems outside an academic setting), when I reflect on a social problem, I think about what is being done to address the problem at an individual (micro-level) and community or societal level (macro-level). This perspective has guided my work at National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) in helping create the programs, services, technical assistance, and resources used by organizations to transform communities and the lives of families and individuals.

This perspective has often led me to consider the role of marriage in addressing father absence and, hence, poverty. We know from lots of research that children who grow up in married homes fare better, on average, on a range of physical, social, and emotional indicators of health and well-being, including a lower risk of growing up in poverty and being poor as adults. We also know that the best predictor of whether a father is present and involved in the life of his child is whether he's married to his child's mother.

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm a proponent of marriage when it comes to connecting fathers to their children and increasing the odds that children will grow up healthy and stay that way into adulthood. At the same time, I'm not an ideologue. I recognize that not every child will grow up in a married home. Moreover, many children from single-parent homes do just fine. I hold that view because of what I've seen and experienced at the micro-level.

Nevertheless, if I am to effectively lead a national organization that addresses one of the most consequential social problems of our time, I must also recognize that it's vital to take a macro-level view of father absence, be open to what exists (or doesn't exist) that impacts father absence, and, most importantly, figure out what can be done by NFI and others to effectively combat it.

As a result, I'm always on the lookout for new research that sheds light on the macro-level effects on father absence. A study released just this month from economists at Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley concluded that family structure is the most important predictor of economic mobility.

This wasn't your run-of-the-mill study with a sample size of a few thousand. The researchers examined records on incomes of 40 million children and their parents. This study -- the first to look at the impact of family structure at the community level on children who grow up in single-parent and married-parent homes -- revealed that the effects of family structure on absolute and relative economic mobility play out not only at the level of the family but at the level of the community. Not only is economic mobility more difficult for children living in single-parent homes, but communities with large percentages of single-parent homes make economic mobility more difficult for everyone in the community. Put another way, children who grow up in single-parent homes have a better chance of avoiding poverty if they live in a community with a higher percentage of married-parent homes.

As Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia exclaims, it doesn't just take a village to raise children. It takes a married village.

There is no doubt that a child who grows up without his or her two married parents can turn out just fine. It's also clear that a father doesn't have to be married to the mother of his child to be a good father (although it's certainly more difficult). Still, it's undeniable that if we are to address father absence at the macro-level, we must do everything we can to see that more children grow up in married-parent homes and that we encourage our children to choose marriage for themselves. That priority is critical to creating a nation of married villages that will increase the chance that our children will avoid living their lives in poverty.