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Working Paper

Data Tools 6: The Geography of Traditional Families in America

American Enterprise Institute

April 17, 2023

The sixth in a series from Charles Murray.

“Every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians—we call them ‘children.’” These words, often attributed to Hannah Arendt, express a truth that societies have known since societies began: Children must be socialized. Two other truths that societies have instinctively known for millennia are that the birth parents must be the primary actors and that marriage is the best framework.

Modern social science has accumulated a half century of evidence corroborating this ancient wisdom, comparing how children from various family structures fare as adults. The unvarying finding, whether measured by arrest records, substance abuse, educational attainment, employment, income, or emotional well-being, is that, on average, children growing up with married birth parents fare better than children growing up in any alternative arrangement. This does not imply that all children raised by married birth parents turn out well nor that all children in other family structures turn out poorly. The question is which family structure works best. No serious scholar disputes the answer.

The rankings of the alternative arrangements that involve only one birth parent are less clear. The next-best alternative would seem to be a remarried birth parent, on grounds that two parents are better than one. But the data are equivocal, and understandably so. Stepparents and stepchildren sometimes resent each other, and stepparents often don’t have the same authority as a birth parent in the child’s eyes. Moreover, child abuse by males is perpetrated overwhelmingly by a stepfather or cohabiting boyfriend who is not the birth father.

The comparison between a single divorced parent and a single never-married parent is also complicated. On average, children growing up with a divorced parent do better than children growing up with a never-married parent. However, those differences are attenuated after controlling for income, education, and ethnicity.

The story for cohabiting parents needs more data. Cohabitation in the United States usually lasts only a few years before breaking up or transitioning to legal marriage. There’s no way to measure outcomes for children who reach adolescence with cohabiting birth parents because there are so few of them. The much more common configuration for children more than a few years old is life with the birth mother and a resident boyfriend. Outcomes for these children are similar to those for children raised by never-married mothers but with an added risk of child abuse.

One thing we do know confidently about children living with cohabiting parents is that their average family income is far lower than that of children in other two-parent configurations. In the 2021 ACS, median family income was $115,600 for children of married birth parents, $87,300 for children of parent-stepparent couples, and only $33,500 for children of cohabiting parents. On average, the worst outcomes are experienced by children who are raised not by either birth parent but by grandparents, other relatives, or foster parents or in orphanages. Such children have usually experienced multiple family transitions—often traumatic ones—and the reasons the birth parents are absent often involve their drug abuse, mental illness, criminal behavior, or domestic violence, all of which mean a problematic genetic heritage for the children.

Adoption has a better track record than other no-parent alternatives. Children adopted in infancy generally do well relative to their genetic heritages. However, that caveat is important. In the 21st century, when pregnant unmarried women are no longer encouraged to choose adoption, the genetic heritage of the few infants who are given up for adoption is more likely than a century ago to carry problems that the adoptive parents cannot solve. Adopting children who are past infancy is also associated with a higher incidence of problems because of the greater chance of early trauma or deprivation that have lasting effects.

All these statements concern children in the aggregate. But how have they played out in different parts of the country? Using 2014–21 data from the American Community Survey (ACS), Data Tools #6 consists of an Excel data file named Child Atlas.xlsx that contains data about the prevalence of the two extremes: children raised by married birth parents and children raised without either birth parent. The data file has 2,351 lines, one for of each of the “Public Use Microdata Areas” (PUMAs) covering the entire United States of America. For more information about PUMAs, see Data Tools #1.

Child Atlas.xlsx also contains variables about the ethnicity of America’s current generation of children; their parents’ marital status, income, and educational attainment; and labor force participation of the male paternal figures. Additionally, it includes a set of variables for characterizing the entire population of each PUMA.

The questions you can explore depend on your interests. If you are a political analyst, you can map this information onto voting patterns and red state–blue state issues. If you are an economist, you can explore the relationships of traditional marriage with labor force variables in places as different as the deindustrialized Rust Belt and the booming Southwest. If you are a sociologist interested in America’s elites, you can compare patterns found in Los Angeles’s Bel Air, Chicago’s North Shore, and Manhattan’s Upper East Side. If instead your topic is America’s working class, you can compare patterns found in the urban working-class areas of Philadelphia and Detroit with those of rural communities in Maine and Georgia.

You don’t have to be a social scientist to find the dataset relevant. If you have young children, want to be in a community where the traditional family remains strong, and have flexibility about where you pursue your career, the data in Child Atlas.xlsx can help you compare potential places to live. Or you can download the dataset just to see where your current PUMA stands. To my knowledge, you won’t find comparable numbers anywhere else.

Download the Dataset

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