We can no longer ignore or downplay the ripple effect of broken families.
America’s gap between rich and poor is one of the highest in the world, and the highest it’s been since 1928. This should concern all of us no matter where we fall on the socio-economic spectrum. Why? While some inequality drives innovation and growth, growth slows after a certain point when wealth becomes too unevenly distributed. In other words, the whole economy suffers.
We spoke with hundreds of high school and college students for our book Man, Interrupted, and despite being generally optimistic about their futures, many told us they are worried that they will not be able to afford the same opportunities to their children that their parents provided them. Some worry they won’t be able to afford children at all. This sentiment reflects a recent nationwide survey in which half of Millennials believe that the American Dream is dead.
Intergenerational mobility has declined since the 1970s – children raised in wealthy households will most likely stay wealthy and children brought up in poverty will most likely stay poor, with the children of parents on welfare more likely to rely on welfare themselves. But unlike the earlier times, where the upper class insulated its members regardless of talent and kept the lower classes out regardless of individual ability, this trend has resulted from talented people of all backgrounds being able to rise to the top through motivation, marrying other talented people and their children following the same pattern. The elite are being rewarded based on merit, with merit-building opportunities easier to come by the more educated and well-connected one becomes. In sociology this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Effect, a concept like compound interest where success and poverty self-replicate.
There is a wide-held belief that new policies can help bring more balance to the situation, and there’s no doubt top-down systemic changes, such as improving school and teacher quality in poorer districts, could produce some positive results. But we should also be addressing the bottom-up individual and social factors that propel or hold back a child’s future success. One factor in particular has a profound impact yet is often entirely left out of the conversation: fathers.
George Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry, ran the longitudinal Harvard Study of Adult Development, informally known as the Grant Study, for over forty years (since 1966). It was started in 1938 as a way to measure not just pathology, as was trendy at the time, but how nature and nurture influenced mental and physical health outcomes in men. The original researchers wanted not just to observe health over time, but optimum health.
In his latest analysis, marking the seventy-fifth year of the study – most of the participants now in their nineties – Vaillant mentions on multiple occasions the importance of a warm childhood, which he defines as having a close relationship with one’s parents (who are married) and at least one sibling. The study found that the men that had warm childhoods were more trusting and happy. They were also more successful, earning 50 percent more money than their peers.
Even as the Grant Study men got older and retired, their level of contentment “was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income,” said Vaillant. “What it was significantly associated with was warmth of childhood environment, and it was very significantly associated with a man’s closeness to his father.”
This relationship is now what is missing in all too many homes these days. Right now, about a third of children are raised in father-absent homes, and every year more and more children born to single mothers.
In a survey by the National Fatherhood Initiative, 56 percent of mothers who were married or lived with the father of their children said the father had a “very close and warm” relationship with the children versus 15 percent of mothers who did not live with the father, and just 3 percent of mothers who were married or lived with the father of their children said the father had a “distant and unemotional” relationship with the children versus 47 percent of mothers who did not live with the father.
The families least likely to have the father physically present are the poorest families. One of the reasons why this is so is because the current welfare system discourages single mothers from establishing a stable two-parent household. Women who marry or maintain a home with the biological father of their children can face the reduction or loss of their benefits whereas an unrelated cohabitor male’s resources are not counted. In other words, the current welfare structure actually promotes having nearly any man but the biological father heading the house, inhibiting family formation and even inciting family breakdown. Yet these backward incentives go unchallenged as the majority of moms believe that absent or uninvolved dads can easily be replaced by themselves or another man.
It is well established that cohabiting and single parents do not provide as stable a foundation for children, who often end up living in two different worlds. Compared with children in intact, married families, children in cohabiting families are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, use drugs or become depressed. Compared with marriage, cohabitation also provides less commitment and safety to children (who are three times more likely to suffer physical, sexual or emotional abuse) and romantic partners. Consequently, cohabiting couples are more than twice as likely to break up and four times more likely to be unfaithful to each other.
By contrast, children of married parents are far less likely to grow up in poverty and have higher rates of upward mobility than children of single parents. Children of married parents also have fewer learning disabilities, fewer mental and behavioral problems, score higher in reading, verbal and problem-solving skills, most academic measures, and the majority of social competence measures. Perhaps as a result, they have more playmates. They’re also more likely to do better and go further in school.
These social and educational advantages increase in importance as the costs of living rise. In the 1970s the majority of Americans with a high school education or less were still able to flourish and make it into the middle classes. Over the next several decades, however, that path to the middle class has become less attainable. The workforce has increased by almost 70 percent while the majority of the net job growth has been created by positions that require at least some post-secondary education. Those with a high school education or less decreased to 41 percent of workers, meaning about two million jobs are no longer available to those with no post-secondary education.
Costs of living – proportions have grown out of control:
1970: Tuition: 5.5 percent of annual household income
House: 305 percent of annual household income
1991: Tuition: 19 percent of annual household income
House: 500 percent of annual household income
2010: Tuition: 33 percent of annual household income
House: 552 percent of annual household income
The picture is especially grim for the less educated male, who is less likely than his female counterpart to secure a recession-proof job. Over the last 40 years the median annual earnings dropped 38 percent for male high school dropouts but just 2 percent for men with a college degree – keep in mind those numbers only include the men who have jobs. The average earnings at every education level surpass median earnings, indicating a concentrated wage increase only for those at the top of the distribution.
In sum, a high school diploma is no longer a passport to “living the dream.” And the rise of gig-based jobs, which are often filled by those without a college degree, means more and more companies don’t have to provide full-time employee benefits, or any kind of workplace protections, health care, or retirement savings plan. Teens and young people in their early 20s – especially those from low-income families – are less likely to be employed and have job experience now than ten years ago. Not only that, the Social Security trustees estimate that by 2033, the Social Security trust fund will be drained; even though there will be new taxpayers contributing to the system, young people today can only expect to receive three-quarters of the promised benefits through 2087.
Men with little earning potential are also less likely to get married and stay married. Surveys reveal that for women, “marrying up” is more important than it used to be – for example, three out of four women would not date an unemployed man while two-thirds of men would date an unemployed woman. And both the majority of men and women agree that the man should pay the full bill on a date, with more than twice as many men saying they pay all the bills in their relationship.
Women also ask for seven out of ten divorces, and fathers win custody battles just 10 to 15 percent of the time. The men who win or get shared custody are usually the ones who can afford lawyers. Young boys often have more difficulty adapting to a lack of a father or their parents’ divorce than young girls – especially when the father leaves the home, and they are more affected by the accompanying disadvantages. It makes sense – what kind of future is a boy supposed to see for himself when his father is forced out of the picture?
Daughters, who can learn from their mothers and largely female teachers, are encouraged and motivated to get a college degree. For young men, however, the take away lesson is that being involved in one’s family, one’s community and doing well in school is a “girl thing.” Understanding the importance of staying in school and setting up the foundations for a successful personal and professional life are something that builds upon the way that fathers love.
Unlike mothers, who love their child no matter what, fathers are the ones who most often set and more importantly enforce boundaries for their children, instilling a sense of self-discipline, and showing them the importance of delaying gratification and sticking with a task and seeing it through to completion. Children – young boys in particular – need this kind of nurturing, as they are not as self-regulating as young girls. It is in this crucial phase of youth that habits are formed and life paths get laid out.
Sometimes it takes a crisis for a problem to be acknowledged. We’re reaching the point where we can no longer ignore or downplay the ripple effects of broken families. Nor can we hold on to the notion that boys will just “sort out their lives” when they reach adulthood and somehow be good fathers and leaders despite not having many, if any, examples of such men growing up.
To anyone out there who is concerned that caring about men’s issues will distract from women’s issues, Christina Hoff Sommers, feminist and former professor of philosophy, has a compelling response: “The current plight of boys and young men is, in fact, a women’s issue. Those boys are our sons; they are the people with whom our daughters will build a future. If our boys are in trouble, so are we all.” We must begin to provide real hope and inspiration for young men – the next generation of fathers – by creating new social expectations that are more productive for them and society.
America cannot afford the death of the American Dream, yet as more American families fall apart or don’t come together in the first place, the further out of sight that dream gets. Nobody wants to see what will replace it. If we wish to have greater social equality, we need to acknowledge the impact of family composition, the value of men as parents, teachers and mentors, and get more dads present and involved in their children’s lives.
 Brandmeir, K., Grimm, M., Heise, M., and Holzhausen, A. (2015). Global Wealth Report 2015. Retrieved December 13, 2015, from Allianz: https://www.allianz.com/v_1443702256000/media/economic_research/publications/specials/en/AGWR2015_ENG.pdf. 11; and Note: today in OECD nations, the ratio of the wealthiest 10 percent of the population’s earnings to the poorest 10 percent of population’s earnings is 9.6:1. In the 1980s the ratio was 7:1, in the 1990s it was 8:1, and in the 2000s it was 9:1. In 2013 that ratio in the US was 18.8. See: Inequality. (n.d.). Retrieved December 21, 2015 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: http://www.oecd.org/social/inequality.htm; and In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All. (2015). Retrieved December 21, 2015, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/employment/in-it-together-why-less-inequality-benefits-all/summary/english_bc9f5d0b-en.
 Sommeiller, E. and Price, M. (2014, February 19). The Increasingly Unequal States of America. Retrieved December 13, 2015, from Economic Policy Institute: http://www.epi.org/publication/unequal-states/.
 How inequality affects growth. (2015, June 15). Retrieved December 13, 2015, from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2015/06/economist-explains-11.
 Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service 28th Edition. (2015). Retrieved December 13, 2015, from Harvard University Institute of Politics: http://www.iop.harvard.edu/sites/default/files_new/pictures/151208_Harvard_IOP_Fall_2015_Topline.pdf.
 Huang, W. (2015, January 21). Parents’ reliance on welfare leads to more welfare use by their children, study finds. Retrieved October 16, 2015, from University of Chicago: http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2015/01/21/parents-reliance-welfare-leads-more-welfare-use-their-children-study-finds.
 Vaillant, G.E. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. 4.
 Ibid. p. 113.
 Ibid. p. 115.
 Cribb, R. (2011, November 25). “The Grim Evidence That Men Have Fallen Behind Women.” Retrieved November 26, 2011, from Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/life/2011/11/25/rob_cribb_the_grim_evidence_that_men_have_fallen_behind_women.html.
 Martin, J.A., Hamilton, B.E., Osterman, M.J., Curtin, S.C., and Mathews, T.J. (2013). Births: Final Data for 2012. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from National Vital Statistics Reports, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr62/nvsr62_09.pdf#table02; and note: US birth rates by race for women under 30 – Blacks: 73 percent; Hispanics: 53 percent; Whites: 29 percent. See: DeParle, J. and Tavernise, S. (2012). “For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage.” Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/18/us/for-women-under-30-most-births-occur-outside-marriage.html.
 Glenn, N. and Whitehead, B.D. (2009). MAMA SAYS: A National Survey of Mothers’ Attitudes on Fathering. Retrieved June 26, 2014, from National Fatherhood Institute: http://www.fatherhood.org/mama-says-survey. 9.
 Note: “Our main finding is that if a male has financial resources, TANF provides the greatest disincentive to form and/or maintain a biological family, and the least disincentive, if not an incentive, to form an unrelated cohabitor family. In a biological family, where the male is the father of all the children, he must be included in the unit and his resources counted. In an unrelated cohabitor family, where he is father of none of the children, he is not included and his resources are not counted. In addition, most states disregard unrelated cohabitor vendor and cash payments to the TANF recipient and her children.” See: Moffitt, R.A., Reville, R.T., Winkler, A.E., and Burstain, J.M. (2008, August revised 2009, February). Cohabitation and Marriage Rules in State TANF Programs. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, US Department of Health and Human Services: http://www.aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/09/CohabitationMarriageRules/index.shtml.
 Glenn, N. and Whitehead, B.D. (2009). MAMA SAYS: A National Survey of Mothers’ Attitudes on Fathering. Retrieved June 26, 2014, from National Fatherhood Initiative: http://www.fatherhood.org/mama-says-survey. 5.
 Wilcox, W.B. (2011, August 30). “A Shaky Foundation for Families.” Retrieved May 8, 2014, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/08/30/shotgun-weddings-vs-cohabitating- parents/cohabitation-is-a-shaky-foundation.
 Blackwell, D.L. (2007). “Family structure and children’s health in the United States: Findings from the National Health Interview Survey, 2001–2007.” National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 10(246). 7.
 Ibid. 1.
 Hjern, A.,Weitoft,G.R., and Lindblad, F. (2010,June). “Social Adversity Predicts ADHD-Medication in School Children – A National Cohort Study.” Retrieved November 22, 2011, from Acta Paediatrica: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2009.01638.x/pdf; and Dawson, D.A. (1991, June). Family Structure and Children’s Health: United States, 1988 (Table 13). Retrieved November 22, 2011, from US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_178.pdf.
 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2011). “How do students from single-parent families perform in reading?” Retrieved from OECD Publishing: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264095250-22-en.
 Ladd, L. (2000). What Fathers Contribute to Child Development. Retrieved from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: http://fcs.tamu.edu/families/parenting/fathering/fathering_pdf/development.pdf.
 Guidubaldi, J. (1987). “Growing Up in a Divorced Family: Initial and Long Term Perspectives on Children’s Adjustment,” Applied Social Psychology, 230, 7.
 Christoffersen, M.N. (1995), An Investigation of Fathers with 3 to 5-Year old Children (Chart 3). Social Research Institute Ministerratskonferenz, Stockholm, Sweden.
 Symonds, W.C., Schwartz, R.B., and Ferguson, R. (2011, February). “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century.” Retrieved May 30, 2014, from Report issued by the Pathways to Prosperity Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news_events/ features/2011/Pathways_to_Prosperity_Feb2011.pdf. 2.
 Note: in 1970 a new house in the US cost $26,600, and the median household income was $8,730. The average yearly cost of tuition at a public four-year university was $480; private university was $1,980. See: McLaughlin, M.A. (1988, December). Trends in College Tuition And Student Aid Since 1970. Human Resources and Community Development Division, Congressional Budget Office. 3; and Coder, J.F. and Cleveland, R.W. (1971, July 27). Household Income in 1970 And Selected Social And Economic Characteristics of Households. US Department of Commerce, Consumer Income Statistics Branch, Population Division, US Census Bureau. 1; and Median and Average Sales Prices of New Homes Sold in United States (n.d.). Retrieved April 28, 2014, from US Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov/const/uspriceann.pdf.
 Note: in 1990 the average cost of a new house in the US increased to $149,800, the median household income was $29,943 and the average yearly tuition cost at a public university was $5,693 (1991–2 academic year) – three to four times more than what it was in proportion to household income twenty years earlier. See: Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities, Digest of Education Statistics, 2012. (2013). Retrieved April 28, 2014, from US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES 2014-015): http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76; and Money Income of Households, Families, and Persons in the United States (1991, August). US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, US Census Bureau (P60-174). 1; and Median and Average Sales Prices of New Homes Sold in United States (n.d.). Retrieved April 28, 2014, from US Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov/const/uspriceann.pdf.
 Note: in 2010, the average cost of a new house was $272,900 and the median household income was $49,445. The average cost of tuition at a public four-year institution was $16,384. See: Tuition Costs of Colleges and Universities, Digest of Education Statistics, 2012 (2013). Retrieved April 28, 2014, from US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES 2014-015): http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76; and Median and Average Sales Prices of New Homes Sold in United States (n.d.). Retrieved April 28, 2014, from US Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov/const/uspriceann.pdf; and DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B.D., and Smith, J.C. (2011, September), Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010. US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, US Census Bureau (P60-239). 5.
 Greenstone, M. and Looney, A. (2011). Trends. Retrieved June 8, 2014, from The Milken Institute: http://www.milkeninstitute.org/ publications/review/2011_7/08-16MR51.pdf. 11.
 Leavitt, E. (2015, August 7). Rise of gig economy highlights changing job ideals among Millennials. Retrieved August 18, 2015, from USA Today: http://college.usatoday.com/2015/08/07/gig-economy-millennials/.
 Symonds, W.C., Schwartz, R.B., and Ferguson, R. (2011, February). “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century.” Retrieved May 30, 2014, from Report issued by the Pathways to Prosperity Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news_events/ features/2011/Pathways_to_Prosperity_Feb2011.pdf. 15, 38.
 Carter, E. (2014, October 3). 7 Myths You Probably Believe About Social Security. Retrieved August 18, 2015 from Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/financialfinesse/2014/10/03/7-myths-you-probably-believe-about-social-security/; also see Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees. (2013). Status of the Social Security and Medicare Programs: A Summary of the 2013 Annual Reports. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from the Social Security Administration: http://www.ssa.gov/oact/TRSUM/2013/tr13summary.pdf.
 Greenstone, M. and Looney, A. (2012, February 2). The Marriage Gap: The Impact of Economic and Technological Change on Marriage Rates. Retrieved December 17, 2015, from The Hamilton Project: http://www.hamiltonproject.org/papers/the_marriage_gap_the_impact_of_economic_and_technological_change_on_ma/.
 Ross, T. (2011, January 4). “What women really want: to marry a rich man.” Retrieved August 11, 2015 the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8237298/What-women-really-want-to-marry-a-rich-man.html.
 Mielach, D. (2012, June 26). “75 Percent of Women Say They Won’t Date Unemployed Men.” Retrieved August 11, 2015 from Business News Daily: http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/2753-dating-unemployed-men-women.html#sthash.NEVELtZ0.dpuf.
 Gentry, J. (2014, September 25). “Who Pays for the First Date? Survey Says Men Should.” Retrieved September 28, 2014, from USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/09/25/survey-who-pays-for-first-date/16195739/.
 Saad, G. (2013, November 14). Do Men or Women File for Divorce More Often? Retrieved December 4, 2014, from Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/homo-consumericus/201311/do-men-or-women-file-divorce-more-often.
 Note: In a long-term study in Wisconsin, fathers won custody just 10 to 15 percent of the time on average. The greater a man’s income, the greater the likelihood he would have shared or sole custody. See: Brown, P. & Cook, S.T. (2012, November). Children’s Placement Arrangements in Divorce and Paternity Cases in Wisconsin. Retrieved August 27, 2015, from Institute for Research on Poverty. University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://www.irp.wisc.edu/research/childsup/cspolicy/pdfs/2009-11/Task4A_CS_09-11_Final_revi2012.pdf; also see “Why Do Women Win Most Custody Battles?” (n.d.). Retrieved May 17, 2014, from Attorneys.com: http://www.attorneys.com/child-custody/why-do-women-win-most-custody-battles/.
 Miller, C.C. (2015, October 22). A Disadvantaged Start Hurts Boys More Than Girls. Retrieved December 17, 2015, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/upshot/a-disadvantaged-start-hurts-boys-more-than-girls.html?_r=0.
 The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behavior, Confidence. (2015). Retrieved July 21, 2015 from OECD: http://www.oecd.org/publications/the-abc-of-gender-equality-in-education-9789264229945-en.htm. 58.
 Sommers, C.H. (2013). The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. 3.
Photo: Getty Images