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Why it takes a village of fathers to raise a child

Research shows that black boys who grew up in neighbourhoods with lots of black fathers are much more likely to earn about as much as white men when they grow up. Credit: Getty.

December 11, 2019 - 3:23pm

For those who doubt that family structure denialism is a thing on the Left, one need only open the pages of The New York Times this week. They ran an op-ed titled “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home” which sought to minimize the importance of family structure when it comes to “black kids’ success”. According to the article, “resources, more than family structure” are what really matter.

Drawing on her own research on high school completion, Harvard sociologist Christina Cross argued that “living apart from a biological parent does not carry the same cost for black youths as for their white peers, and being raised in a two-parent family is not equally beneficial”. The article’s broader message: for black children, the intact, married family is not so important, indeed not even close in its importance compared to structural factors like racial segregation and poverty.

Yet if one looks at the literature, what this amounts to is an egregious exercise in cherry-picking, which draws on only two studies to make the argument about family structure and black children; in fact, she completely passes over a finding from her own study that showed the link between family structure and college enrollment was not lower for African-Americans.

So, what does the research really tell us about family structure and race? One of the least understood areas of research is the so-called “neighbourhood effect”. This refers to everything from racial segregation to concentrated poverty, and here family structure is a big part of the story — on outcomes ranging from economic mobility to incarceration.

In fact, new research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues find that one of the strongest predictors of a big racial gap in adult income between black and white men traces back to the absence of black fathers in the wider neighbourhood where they grew up.

By contrast, black boys who grew up in neighbourhoods with lots of black fathers (and, the study finds, married adults) are much more likely to earn about as much as white men when they grow up. “That is a pathbreaking finding,” William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist, told The Times. “They’re talking about the presence of fathers in a given census tract.”

In other words, more black fathers in the village translates into less racial economic inequality for black men.

To talk then, about, the “myth of two-parent home” when it comes to thinking about “black kids’ success” does a profound disservice to confronting racial inequality in America. While family structure is not the only factor implicated in this divide, it is a central factor when it comes to racial gaps on outcomes as varied as school suspensions, poverty, and affluence.

If we wish to close the racial gap, it will not be enough to address the structural barriers in the path of black kids. We must also figure out new ways to increase the share of black children being raised in intact families and in neighbourhoods with lots of father-present families.

W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the National Marriage Project. Additional writing by Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep, a charter school network based in New York, NY, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Brad Wilcox is Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of the book Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families and Save Civilization, which published in February 2024 by HarperCollins.

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