The horrific, execution-style killing of three teens in Newark last weekend has sparked widespread outrage and promises of reform from politicians, religious leaders, and community activists, who are pledging a renewed campaign against the violence that plagues New Jersey’s largest city. But much of the reaction, though well-intentioned, misses the point. Behind Newark’s persistent violence and deep social dysfunction is a profound cultural shift that has left many of the city’s children growing up outside the two-parent family—and in particular, growing up without fathers. Decades of research tell us that such children are far likelier to fail in school and work and to fall into violence than those raised in two-parent families. In Newark, we are seeing what happens to a community when the traditional family comes close to disappearing.
According to 2005 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 32 percent of Newark children are being raised by their parents in a two-adult household. The rest are distributed among families led by grandparents, foster parents, and single parents—mostly mothers. An astonishing 60 percent of the city’s kids are growing up without fathers. It isn’t that traditional families are breaking up; they aren’t even getting started. The city has one of the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates in the country, with about 65 percent of its children born to unmarried women. And 70 percent of those births are to women who are already poor, meaning that their kids are born directly into poverty.
The economic consequences of these numbers are unsettling, since single parenthood is a road to lasting poverty in America today. In Newark, single parents head 83 percent of all families living below the poverty line. If you are a child born into a single-parent family in Newark, your chances of winding up in poverty are better than one in five, but if you are born into a two-parent family, those chances drop to just one in twelve.
And the social consequences are even more disturbing. Research conducted in the 1990s found that a child born out of wedlock was three times more likely to drop out of school than the average child, and far more likely to wind up on welfare as an adult. Studies have also found that about 70 percent of the long-term prisoners in our jails, those who have committed the most violent crimes, grew up without fathers.
The starkness of these statistics makes it astonishing that our politicians and policy makers ignore the subject of single parenthood, as if it were outside the realm of civic discourse. And our religious leaders, who once preached against such behavior, now also largely avoid the issue, even as they call for prayer vigils and organize stop-the-violence campaigns in Newark. Often, in this void, the only information that our teens and young adults get on the subject of marriage, children, and family life comes through media reports about the lifestyles of our celebrity entertainers and athletes, who have increasingly shunned matrimony and traditional families. Once, such news might have been considered scandalous; today, it is reported matter-of-factly, as if these pop icons’ lives were the norm.
Faced with such a profound shift in attitudes, even well-designed, well-intentioned government programs that have worked elsewhere may have only limited success in a community like Newark. The city’s dynamic new mayor, Cory Booker, has moved quickly to import successful ideas and programs, including rigorous quality-of-life policing from New York City. Booker is advocating sensible changes to fix the city’s troubled school system, which graduates a shockingly low number of students, and he’s looking at job training programs to get fathers involved, at least economically, in their children’s lives.
But Booker has also shown frustration at the slow pace of change in Newark, and earlier this week he observed that the city’s problems didn’t start yesterday and won’t be solved tomorrow. Given that some 3,750 kids are born every year into fatherless Newark families, Booker’s prediction may be depressingly correct.