Young people who grow up in fatherless families are far more likely to live in poverty

Young people who grow up in fatherless families are far more likely to live in poverty

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“The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.”

Marco Rubio, (2014, Jan. 8). United States Senator for Florida. Reclaiming The Land of Opportunity: Conservative Reforms for Combatting Poverty. Web.

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“If we could return marriage rates to what they were in the 1970s, the proportion of children who are poor would drop by about 4 percentage points (more than most safety net programs have accomplished.)”

Isabel Sawhill, (2014). Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage, Brookings Institution Press, 10.

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“… [W]hen parents fail to marry and stay married, children are more likely to experience deep and persistent poverty, even after controlling for race and family background.”

W. Bradford Wilcox et. al., (2005).Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences, rev. ed. Institute of American Values, 19.

The importance of a father to the economic well-being of children cannot be overemphasized. Statistically, one of the greatest predictors of financial stability for children is the presence of a committed father. This is dramatically illustrated by the increased threat of poverty when a father is absent. Nationally, 40 percent of all homes where a married father is not present are in poverty. In 2021, the poverty rate for fatherless homes was more than twice the average for all families in America and nearly five times the rate of poverty for children living with a married mother and father.

In Massachusetts, the economic disparity between married mother-father homes and fatherless households is even greater. For example, the poverty rate for fatherless families in the Commonwealth is more than seven times higher than the poverty rate for children who are living in married two-parent families. The poverty rate for children when both mother and father are present is 4.2 percent. In contrast, 34.8 percent of Massachusetts children living without a father are in households with incomes at or below the official poverty line.


In Massachusetts, the poverty rate for fatherless families is more than seven times higher than the poverty rate for children who are living in married two-parent families.​

These statistics are even more unsettling when we look at the real dollar value of what it means to be “in poverty.” The federal poverty threshold in 2023 for a mother and one child is $19,720.19 For a mother and two children, it was $24,860. Children in mother-father families, however, are significantly less vulnerable to falling below the poverty level. In fact, they are statistically less likely to get anywhere near it. A clear majority, nearly 60 percent, of Massachusetts children in intact, two-parent families live in what is termed “financially-secure households,” with annual incomes at least 400 percent of the official poverty level.


There has been much concern and discussion in recent years about the problem of “rising income inequality.” Many lament what is seen as a growing gulf between the super-rich and the working poor. Sadly, a critical factor in this discussion is often overlooked; that is, the increase in fatherless families is a significant contributor to income inequality. In the Commonwealth, for example, the median family income for married-couple households with children in 2021 was $157,418. For female-headed households with children, it was less than a quarter as much, $37,974.21.

Nearly 70 percent of Massachusetts children in married-couple households have both parents in the labor force. By contrast, almost 30 percent of children with unmarried mothers have no parent working to support them. Eighty percent of children in married-couple households in Massachusetts live in houses or apartments that their parents own. Two-thirds of children in female-headed households have mothers who are renters.


In four of the ten largest cities in Massachusetts, at least 40% of children in fatherless homes are poor.

A survey of 44 cities and towns in the Commonwealth demonstrates a similarly strong correlation between marriage and income. The chart below illustrates the dramatic rise in a community’s median family income as the percentage of children who live with married parents increases.

For example, in Springfield, where barely a third of children live with both parents, the median annual household income for homes with children is just over $40,000. On the other hand, in Lexington, where nearly 90 percent of children live with both their mother and father, the median annual income is more than five times higher. In fact, the three cities with the highest rates of married families (Wellesley, Lexington, and Needham–each at around 90 percent) were also the highest in terms of annual income, with the federal census having stopped counting once the median hit a quarter of a million dollars per year.

What we see in between these examples is a steady rise in income as the number of families headed by a married mother and father increases. Once a community has approximately four out of five children living in homes with both parents, the average household income skyrockets.

While statistics and social science data cannot predict the impact of fatherlessness on every child, they do indicate who will likely be hit the hardest by its effects. The burden of fatherlessness is disproportionately borne by the children of our urban communities. In four of the 10 largest cities in Massachusetts – Boston, Springfield, Fall River, and Worcester – more than 40 percent of children in fatherless families were poor during the 2017-2021 time period. In three additional cities – Lowell, Lynn, and New Bedford – child poverty rates in fatherless families were one in three or greater.

There are several reasons why single-parent families, particularly those without fathers, are more likely to be poorer than their mother-father counterparts:

  • It is inherently more costly for two parents to live apart and maintain separate housing, separate appliances, separate transportation, etc.
  • In Massachusetts, more fatherless families than married-couple families have no one in the household in the labor force. In 2021, 18.5 percent of fatherless households did not report any employment. By contrast, only 1.2 percent of children with married parents did not have at least one parent employed.
  • For 40.6 percent of Massachusetts children living with a single parent, that parent had achieved only a high school education or less. This limited the earning potential of the household.

This leads us to conclude that, in America, one of the principal causes of income inequality is the structure and health of the family. Young people who grow up in fatherless homes are simply far more likely to live in poverty than those with a married father and mother living together. This is true despite the heroic efforts of single mothers, and we do not mean to disparage in any way the sacrifice and exhausting work of raising children alone. Instead, we should work to minimize the number who must do so. As a society, we can no longer ignore the reality that marriage is the fault line between the middle class and the poor.

Click here to download a complete PDF version of the report.