It is no secret that men are not doing well today.

They are falling behind women in nearly all important categories of life achievement. For instance, only four out of every 10 college students is a male, but young men are three to four times more likely to spend any time behind bars compared to women.

Many thought leaders have offered various reasons for why men are falling behind, such as here, here, and here. Scholars at the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) suggest that most analysts are overlooking one of the most fundamental factors driving well-being outcomes for young men: whether he grows up in a thriving home with his own married mother and father or not.

A new IFS research brief concludes,

The most striking finding is that young men from non-intact families are more likely to land in prison or jail than they are to graduate from college, whereas young men raised by their married fathers are significantly more likely to graduate from college than spend any time in prison/jail.

This positive marriage factor is even more important and powerful than race or income.

These scholars add, “Social scientists generally find that children raised by their married, biological parents do better than those from non-intact families.” It is also true that “this relationship is found independent of race, gender, or income and applies to numerous outcomes (physical health, mental health, educational attainment, etc.).”

IFS asserts, “When it comes to males in particular, stably married parents typically offer boys” the following benefits:

  • More socioeconomic resources that give young males an advantage across their elementary, middle, high school and college careers. This is because boys are more likely to have access to their father’s income, experience and encouragement if dad is married to their mother.
  • Married fathers provide more attention, affection, and constructive discipline, particularly to their sons than unmarried fathers. This minimizes their risk of falling into antisocial activities that serve as a path to prison.
  • Their own two natural parents who know and love them best and have the biological connection that increases the likelihood of investing in their lives, thus reducing risks of neglect or abuse.

Boys raised without their married moms and dads are more likely to be exposed to unrelated adults, especially males, who are well documented to pose a greater risk of abuse and neglect, as IFS founder and senior scholar Brad Wilcox notes in Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization.

Professor Melissa Kearney also explains in her book The Two Parent Advantage: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind how tightly linked marriage and college education are.

Leading scholars examining the impact of family breakdown on children have also carefully documented the connection between fatherlessness and youth incarceration.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, IFS shows the following relationships between graduating from college or going to jail by family form.

These findings are dramatic, showing “young men from a range of different non-intact family forms are more likely to end up in prison than graduate from college by their late-20s” compared to their peers from married homes.

What is even more notable is that “family structure is more strongly associated with incarceration and college graduation than race for young men across both datasets.” Disturbingly, “young men who grew up in non-intact family forms are more likely to go to prison than graduate college in both datasets.”

These scholars conclude, “In other words, what we see for young men today is a family-to-prison-or-college pipeline that is more likely to deliver young men from intact families towards college graduation and young men from non-intact families towards prison or jail” adding, “therefore, any effort to revive the falling fortunes of young men should put family at the forefront.”

Yes, family is defined by more than just love. Marriage between men and women matters greatly and provides rich benefits not found in alternative family forms.

Additional Resources

Why Marriage Really Matters – 3 Focus on the Family Reports

New Research Shows Married Families Matter More Than Ever

Important New Research on How Married Parents Improve Child Well-Being

Brad Wilcox Exhorts Young People to ‘Get Married’

Cohabitation Still Harmful – Even as Stigma Disappears

Don’t Believe the Modern Myth. Marriage Remains Good for Women

Don’t Believe the Modern Myth. Marriage Remains Good for Men.

Yes, Married Mothers Really Are Happier Than Unmarried and Childless Women

Married Fatherhood Makes Men Better

Marriage and the Public Good: A New Manifesto of Policy Proposals



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