Single-Parent Families and Educational Achievement: The Tragedy of Welfare

Project TALENT, a government-funded study that tracked the development of 364,000 high school students from 1960-1971, reported significant differences in the academic performance and adult achievement between children who were raised by an unmarried mother in a fatherless home and children who were raised by two biological parents.

The results were independent of race and socioeconomic status. They were similar for Black and White students. [1,8] A second study assessed 3rd-grade boys and noted consistently superior performance of boys in father-present homes compared to father-absent peers. [2] Several studies quantified the difference as one-tenth of a year for every year spent in a single-parent home. [3]

A third study reported increased behavioral and disciplinary problems as well as school dropouts among single-parent students. The effects on social and intellectual development were more pronounced on boys. [1,4,5,8] The results have been replicated in studies across the globe. Sexual promiscuity, depression, drug abuse and pregnancy rather than delinquency, violent crime and incarceration occurred with alarming frequency in girls.

Despite compelling evidence of the damaging effects of fatherless families on intellectual development, clinically demonstrable by an absence of curiosity and a diminished response to stimulation in five-and six-month old infants and lower IQ in school-age children, the federal government ignored the data and the dire warnings in the Moynihan Report.

“The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 landmark report, warned that the deep roots of poverty lay in the absence of nuclear families, not of jobs, and the government’s proposed national welfare program would greatly exacerbate the problem. [7]  Instead of heeding the warning, President Johnson institutionalized family breakdown as the Great Society.

An avalanche of welfare programs emerged with the destructive consequences Moynihan predicted. Today, more than 1,600,000 infants are born out of wedlock annually in the US (1,714,643 in 2007), a number which represents 41% of the total number of births. By contrast, the rate in 1960 was a mere 5%. [5] The results have had profound effects on the national culture and on academic proficiency, particularly on minority populations.

The results of student performance on international tests will illustrate the magnitude of the effects. The Programme for International Student Assessment (known as PISA) tests the competence of fifteen-year old students in mathematics, science and reading, with an emphasis on mathematics. It is given every three years to members of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. 510,000 students from 65 OECD countries were assessed in 2012, representing 28 million 15-year olds.

PISA also gathers data about the students’ family, socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic background. The data reveal the United States has the highest percentage of students raised in single mother homes among all the nations that participate. In 2012, it was 28% for the US, 8% for Japan and 3% for Greece and South Korea.  The latter three nations ranked higher than the US in all subjects. [5,6]

The United States ranked 20th in math on PISA 2000. That year, 18% of the students were from single-parent homes. On the more recent 2012 assessment, the US ranked 36th. The percentage without fathers was 28%, an increase of more than 50%. [6]

Across the industrialized world, nations with high rates of illegitimacy had lower PISA rankings than the nations with low rates of illegitimacy like Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and India. Raw data were repeatedly adjusted for factors such as race, socioeconomic status, language spoken at home, immigrant status and the parents’ level of education. From the writer’s perspective, this served to minimize the striking differences observed and to discount the effects of fatherlessness on performance.

The differences, however, are independent of such background factors as demonstrated by the remarkable achievements of the offspring of non-English-speaking Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, graduates of Dunbar High School, the nation’s first all-Black public high school, until the mid-20th century and non-English-speaking immigrants from Viet Nam, China, Taiwan, Japan and India whose children continue to outperform their peers.

Although their families were poor, over 90% of these children grew up in traditional two-parent homes. The determinative factor for the differences in performance observed in PISA was a father.

Welfare institutionalizes fatherlessness. The monthly stream of checks and services insinuate the State into the place of the traditional breadwinner. But federal programs cannot fill the critical role of an actual father as PISA and prison populations demonstrated.

Welfare has led to the intergenerational transmission of fatherlessness. The phenomenon is most striking among African-Americans. 53% of Black children are raised in single-parent homes. [8]  In the absence of the father, our civilized society has begun to disappear. Just look at Detroit, Chicago and any jail or prison, cities and institutions with significant single-parent, minority populations. [4]

The nation is at risk. Preventive steps should be taken now to reverse this trend. The public should be educated about the effects of out of wedlock births. Politicians, educators and clergymen should be educated as well.

The almost 200 separate welfare programs need to be cut in half, at a bare minimum. The anti-marriage bias that penalizes couples when they marry (by taxing their combined income) should be removed and a marriage credit issued instead.

Reforms such as loans instead of cash grants should be implemented. Mandatory minimum work requirements and maximum length of benefits should be re-instituted. California currently awards welfare benefits to single mothers until their child reaches 18.  Most importantly, efforts should be made to preserve marriage rather than encourage divorce, perhaps by strengthening overly lax divorce laws.

Precocious sexuality, promiscuity and out of wedlock pregnancy should be discouraged by as many avenues as possible. The cost of illegitimacy should be the topic of sermons in every house of worship. The recovery of shame (an internal governor of human behavior) would be transformative.

Male teachers, coaches and tutors for girls would be both helpful and therapeutic in these efforts. They would make appropriate father surrogates and provide a corrective emotional experience for young women desperately in need of such role models.

Illegitimacy stands at historic highs; marriage and academic achievement of America’s youth, at historic lows. This trend must be reversed.

There are certainly examples of children raised in single-parent who have achieved great success such as Dr. Benjamin Carson or Oprah Winfrey. These are typically bright, gifted or talented children with unusually strong, proud mothers or grandmothers. The majority who lack these endowments or caretakers achieve little to no success.

A national tragedy merits a national conversation. Welfare and public education are fraternal twins born of the same bad political seed. Both are in need of reform. Let us continue the discussion in homes and churches and in the national media.

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About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.

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(2)  Bain, H. Academic Achievement and Locus of Control in Father-Absent Elementary School Childr, School Psychology International,1983: 4, 69-68

(3)  Krein, S. and Beller, A., Educational Attainment of Children from Single-Parent Families, Demography, 1988, 25: 221-234






(9)  Personal communications with psychoanalyst William S. Horowitz, MD.

(10)  The primary reason for concern is the California’s liberal welfare eligibility criteria and total benefits that incentivize illegitimacy. Not unsurprisingly, the state ranks 49th in academic performance, bested only by Arkansas. Of the 503,738 babies born in California in 2013, 494, 705 were born out of wedlock. To put those numbers in better perspective in terms of the state’s future academic performance, the total number of students enrolled in kindergarten in California in 2010 was 410,000.

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