The Age

The US recognises the peril of absent fathers. Why can't we?

Unlike America, we have never tried to tackle the problems of single-parent families, writes Betting Arndt.

December 9 2002
Betting Arndt
The Age

James Q. Wilson is a rare social scientist. He not only had a great idea but actually showed that it worked - to the extent of turning whole cities around.

Wilson's "broken window" crime theory argued that allowing petty crimes such as vandalism to proliferate undermined respect for the rule of law and created a climate in which serious violent crime grew. The broken-window approach to policing was adopted enthusiastically by cities such as New York and is seen as a major factor in the dramatic drop in crime that followed.

So when Wilson decides to throw his weight behind the United States' push to promote marriage, it's a big deal.

His latest book, The Marriage Problem: How our Culture Has Weakened Families, makes the case that the institution of marriage, once a reliable thread that held American society together, is falling apart and the resulting growth in fatherlessness is devastating.

Wilson's view is that the destructive features of a world without fathers are by now so well-documented that they are beyond challenge.

In brief, the US statistics are: children living with single mothers are five times as likely to be poor as those in two-parent families. Growing up in a single-parent family also roughly doubles the risk that a child will drop out of school, have difficulty finding a job, or become a teenage parent. About half of these effects appear due to poverty, but the remainder are due to non-economic factors such as poorer supervision.

Children living with cohabiting partners and in stepfamilies generally do less well than those living with two married, biological parents.

Wilson points out that when, in the 1960s, US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan referred to black fatherlessness as "the fundamental weakness of the Negro community", he was accused of everything from racism to cultural imperialism.

Now, 40 years later, most politicians and social analysts agree that tackling fatherlessness must be a national priority.

Very little attention is paid to the fact that almost one-in-three Australian children are born to unmarried mothers.

And the black leaders in the US are among the most vocal, calling for action to reduce the estimated 80 per cent of all African-American children who spend part of their childhood living apart from their fathers.

This year's new welfare reform act includes the goal "to encourage the formation and maintenance of healthy two-parent married families and responsible fatherhood", pledging $US300 million ($A535 million) in federal funds to support marriage promotion efforts.

Most US states have reduced marriage disincentives in their welfare systems, with some introducing family caps that deny additional welfare payments for children conceived while a mother was receiving welfare.

In Australia, meanwhile, the M-word is still too hot to handle. While the evidence of poorer outcomes for children in lone-parent families is readily available, very little attention is paid to the fact that almost one in three Australian children are now born to unmarried mothers - women on their own or in cohabiting relationships that, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, are largely unstable. Unlike America, these issues never even make it on to the agenda of social science conferences in Australia.

The dramatic impact of this trend on our welfare budget - 80 per cent of lone parents receive welfare support - is also commonly ignored.

Australia has significant marriage disincentives built into our welfare system. I understand that the government welfare reform discussion paper scheduled to be released this week mentions the fact that lone parents lose income if they reconcile with a partner, but the issue disappears without a trace when it comes to the options for reform to be presented in the document.

Similarly, the recently released report from the federal parliamentary committee on boys' education refers to submissions documenting the link between family structure and poor educational outcomes for children but concludes that "government policy is relatively ineffective at influencing such things as family structure". How would we know, when, unlike America, we have never tried to tackle the problem?

In fact, the American experience suggests government policy could make a difference. According to the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, between 1995 and 2000 the proportion of children living with single mothers declined by 8 per cent, with an 11 per cent rise in two-parent black families.

If pro-marriage policies prove to be prompting this change, perhaps it's time Australia considered taking similar action, instead of deciding it is all just too hard.

Bettina Arndt is a staff writer.
E-mail: opinion@theage.com.au

Copyright 2002 The Age Company Ltd.