Portrait Of Family Lying On Floor At Home

Photo: United Families International/Family Capital and the SDGs

United Nations officials have set a noble goal “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere by 2030”—also known as Sustainable Development Goal #1.
Is this goal well intentioned? Indeed. Is it attainable? That depends on how one makes sense of the problem,” says Dr Timothy Rarick in this essay from the e-book Family Capital and the SDGs, produced for the World Congress of Families. The second in this series on MercatorNet.


According to the World Bank, in the year 2015 the extreme poverty rate (less than $2/day) around the world allegedly dropped below 10% for the first time.1 Although this is good progress, extreme poverty, for 702 million people, remains an international crisis. We know that women and children are deeply impacted socially and academically by living in poverty.

Politicians, economists and other organizations have many ideas for solving this crisis. United Nations officials, for example, have set a noble goal “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere by 2030”—also known as Sustainable Development Goal #1.2 Is this goal well intentioned? Indeed. Is it attainable? That depends on how one makes sense of the problem. Misdiagnosing the source of this poverty problem can lead to the wrong prescribed solution—no matter how well-intentioned.  

Symptoms vs infections

When a person is suffering from cold or flu-like symptoms it can be very difficult to discern the cause of these debilitating effects. Bacterial and viral infections can manifest very similar symptoms such as: coughing, sneezing, fever, inflammation, etc.3 However, the method for treating these symptoms largely depends on whether this is a bacterial or viral infection. Whereas cold or flu medicine can only treat symptoms, thankfully, antibiotics can rid your body of the bacterial infection, taking care of both symptoms and the problem.

In a similar way, we can approach the plague of poverty by setting goals and prescribing ideas that primarily treat symptoms . . . or we can see the bigger picture and find ways to root out the source of the problem. Some ideas may include simply raising the minimum wage and creating more stable, well-paid jobs—but they can only go so far in treating the symptoms of poverty. Besides, we need competent, educated individuals who can qualify for such jobs. The deeper poverty problem (or infection) may be rooted in the state of the family.  

The family: The cause and the solution

Renowned Russian developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner summarized his research, stating: “The family is the most powerful, the most humane, and by far the most economical system known for building competence and character.”4

Consider this powerful, evidence-based statement! Now consider how the current trends in out-of-wedlock childbearing, divorce and cohabitation are threatening the power of the family unit. Furthermore, each of these threats produces a common result: fatherlessness. These infections, along with many others, have decimated stable homes and families for millions of children worldwide. Until we address the breakdown of the family— particularly the absentee father problem—there will never be a sustainable alternative to eradicating poverty.  


Current social science research powerfully asserts: “. . . there is a Father-Factor in our [world’s] worst social problems. In other words, for many of our most intractable social ills affecting children, father absence is to blame.”5 In the United States over 24 million children are growing up without their biological father; in the year 2014 nearly a quarter of children lived in father-absent homes.6 Dr. Pat Fagan writes: “The Index of Family Belonging for the United States is now just above 45%, which means that 45% of U.S. children on the cusp of adulthood have grown up in an intact married family.”7

This is, in large measure, due to the rise of divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births over the past 50 years. In 1960 only 6% of babies were born to unwed mothers in the United States.8 Thanks to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and the passing of no-fault divorce laws in many countries, that number has risen to over 40% today and continues to increase. Similar trends can be seen in countries around the world. Creating a worldwide culture that teaches sex is a deserved commodity and marriage is based in adult desires and emotions has done more damage to the family structure than almost anything else.

In the overwhelming majority of divorce cases in many countries, custody of the children is given to the mother.9 Although children who are victims of divorce still have a father, the severing of their parents’ marriage often severs the consistent influence from the father. This has had devastating effects—especially in the economic realm, as we will see in the next section.  

If one does not have a good grasp of economics and social science one might assume that poverty is driving the family breakdown rather than the other way around.

The vicious cycle of fatherlessness and poverty

 The positive impact that committed fathers have on women, children and society is staggering. For example:10

  • Infant mortality rates are nearly two times higher for infants of unmarried mothers than for married mothers.
  • Boys in households with a father present had significantly lower odds of incarceration than those in single-mother families.
  • Fathers raise their daughters’ chances of success in academics, earning potential and relationships when they are present and involved.11
  • Father involvement in schools is associated with greater academic success and achievement for both boys and girls.
  • Children in father-absent homes are almost four times more likely to be poor. In 2011, 12% of children in married-couple families were living in poverty, compared to 44% of children in fatherless families.

Are we seeing the connection between fathers and poverty? Dads have the power to decrease the odds of poverty by over 30% and increase the earning potential for his children. One of the crippling effects of poverty is the cycle that is perpetuated throughout the generations.

This runs in parallel with the fatherless cycle. Just as children raised in poverty are likely to raise their own children in the same poor economic conditions, so it is with girls born to unwed mothers. Daughters born out-of-wedlock are much more likely to give birth to fatherless children.

The ‘Vicious Cycle’ diagram helps illustrate the connection between fatherlessness and poverty. Keep in mind, even though this cycle and its connections are based in research, it is important to note that none of these factors cause the others to happen. For example, a child who is born out of wedlock is not guaranteed to be poorly educated or live in poverty. Each preceding item simply makes the following factor much more likely to occur.

Education, skills and competence are keys to economic freedom and success. They are the antidote to poverty. A family headed by a married father and mother provides the best setting to not only succeed economically, but to raise confident, competent, well-educated children who can increase their earning potential and “promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, . . . employment and decent work for all” (SDG #8). Social scientists claim:

An abundant social-science literature, as well as common sense, supports the claim that children are more likely to flourish, and to become productive adults, when they are raised in stable, married couple households. We know, for example, that children in the United States who are raised outside of an intact, married home are two to three times more likely to suffer from social and psychological problems, such as delinquency, depression, and dropping out of high school. They are also markedly less likely to attend college and be stably employed as young adults.12

Stable families will create a society and worldwide economy that is sustainable, because the intact family is the fundamental unit of society. As the families of the world thrive, so do the economies.  

Rethinking our approach to poverty

The first Sustainable Development Goal calls for governments to “help create an enabling environment to generate productive employment and job opportunities for the poor and the marginalized. They can formulate strategies and fiscal policies that stimulate pro-poor growth and reduce poverty.”13

This approach to government policy is necessary, to be sure. Job creation and government subsidies can help alleviate the symptoms associated with poverty, yet they cannot revive and sustain the socioeconomic status of an individual family—let alone a nation’s economy. Furthermore, girls — and by extension women — are much more empowered by having involved fathers than by any government policy or sexual rights agenda attempting to free them from the home. In addition to the SDG#1 proposal, we need governments to view everything through a “family-impact” lens in order to be effective over time.

In her book, Family Policy Matters, Professor Karen Bogenshneider put it this way:

Most policymakers would not think of passing a law or enacting a rule without considering its economic or environmental impact, yet family considerations are seldom taken into account in the normal routine of policymaking…Policymakers explain that they do not have the staff or time to gather all the relevant data on the complex issues that confront them. As a result, they rely on information from lobbyists and special interest groups that is often fragmented, parochial, biased, and less focused on family issues.14

Including creating an enabling environment for families to thrive, here are several ways to bring back fatherhood and promote sustainable economic growth for all:

  • Teach community programs to promote involved, responsible fathering. Research has shown if these programs are taught well and are evidence-based, they increase a father’s (both married and divorced) involvement substantially.15
  • Create educational and skill-based opportunities for fathers (and mothers) to get the training to lift themselves out of the poverty cycle.
  • Improve services and education related to: sexuality, caregiving, violence and parenting for boys and men.
  • Generate a true shift in policy (more than lip service) to focus on teaching all children from a young age about the value of, and their opportunity to be, both caregivers and professionals.
  • Utilize mass and social media outlets to produce and share positive messages about dads, rather than as the incompetent fools many television shows and commercials show them to be.
  • Inform the public about research on the harmful effects of pornography addiction. Porn has the power to destroy our most cherished relationships, thus removing fathers emotionally, physically and financially from the family.
  • Perhaps the most important of all: Re-establish marriage!

Graph: Marriage Foundation UK

The institution of marriage acts as culture’s chief vehicle to bind men to their children. The marriage gap between rich and poor exists in all 20 of the European countries. As Figure 1.2 indicates, 84% of parents who are in the top fifth of household income are married, as opposed to 42% of parents in the bottom fifth of household income. Marriage matters for men, women, children, and economies. But how do we re-establish marriage in the various cultures of the world?

Employers: Create policies and work environments that respect and favor the marital commitment.  

Social work: Within the limits of good practice, promote a culture of family formation.  

Marriage counselors: Begin with a bias in favor of marriage. Avoid being “value-free.”  

Teachers & education administrators: Minimize the implicit and frequently explicit anti-marriage bias prevalent in many schools’ curricula.16  

Strong fathers, strong economies: An auspicious cycle

Whereas fatherless children and poverty create a vicious cycle that perpetuates downward (see figure 1.1), the married, intact family with a hard-working, involved father creates an auspicious cycle that moves upward (figure 1.3).

Along with his wife, a father has the power to promote or increase the financial, academic, professional, and relational competence in a child. Being a responsible person is a matter of character, which is best built in the home. At a young age, boys can and should be taught by both parents—and the predominant culture—to be responsible with: their money, their education, their work, their sex drive and their future children. Boys and men need to learn there is more to life than self-centered, pleasurable pursuits. The values of hard work, integrity and responsibility will be perpetuated throughout generations and society.

Will this take time? Absolutely! Just as cold medicine gives immediate, temporary relief to symptoms, an antibiotic brings gradual yet permanent healing. Only with this kind of approach can the economies—and families—of the world be truly sustainable.

Let us bring back fatherhood and heal the plague of poverty.

Timothy M. Rarick is Professor of Family Studies at Brigham Young University – Idaho. His essay is reproduced with his permission and that of the editor of Family Capital and the SDGS, Susan Roylance.


1. Kottasova, Ivana. “World Poverty Rate to Fall below 10% for the First Time.” CNNMoney. October 5, 2015. Accessed July 10, 2016. http://money.cnn.com/2015/10/05/news/economy/poverty-worldbank/.
2. “Poverty – United Nations Sustainable Development.” UN News Center. Accessed July 13, 2016. http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/poverty/.
3. Ratini, Melinda. “Bacterial vs. Viral Infections: Causes and Treatments.” WebMD. April 10, 2015. Accessed July 13, 2016. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/bacterial-and-viral-infections.
4. Bogenschneider, Karen. Family Policy Matters: How Policymaking Affects Families and What Professionals Can Do. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006. page 52.
5. Mclanahan, Sara, Laura Tach, and Daniel Schneider, “The Causal Effects of Father Absence.” Annu. Rev. Sociol. Annual Review of Sociology 39, no. 1 (2013): 399-427. doi:10.1146/annurev-soc-071312- 145704.
6. Sanders, Ryan. “The Father Absence Crisis in America [Infographic].” The Father Absence Crisis in America. November 12, 2013. Accessed July 14, 2016. http://www.fatherhood.org/The-Father- Absence-Crisis-in-America. 7. Fagan, Patrick. “The Third Annual Index of Family Belonging & Rejection.” Marriage & Religion Research Institute. Accessed July 14, 2016. http://marri.us/index-2013.
8. U.S. Census Bureau, National Center for Health Statistics, 2011.
9. Grall, Timothy. “Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2011.” United States Census Bureau. October 2013. Accessed July 10, 2016. https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p60- 246.pdf.
10. “Statistics on the Father Absence Crisis in America.” Father Facts. Accessed July 14, 2016. http://www.fatherhood.org/father-absence-statistics.
11. Nielsen, Linda. Between Fathers & Daughters: Enriching and Rebuilding Your Adult Relationship. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2008.
12. Longman, Phillip and Paul Corcuera, Laurie Derose, Marga Gonzalvo Cirac, Andres Salazar,Claudia Tarud Aravena and Antonio Torralby, “The Empty Cradle—How Contemporary Family Trends Undermine the Global Economy,” The Sustainable Demographic Dividend, Social Trends Institute, 2010. http://sustaindemographicdividend.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/SDD-2011-Final.pdf
13. “Poverty – United Nations Sustainable Development.” UN News Center. Accessed July 13, 2016. http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/poverty/.
14. Bogenschneider, Karen. Family Policy Matters: How Policymaking Affects Families and What Professionals Can Do. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006. page 4.
15. Cowan, Philip A., Carolyn Pape Cowan, Marsha Kline Pruett, Kyle Pruett, and Jessie J. Wong. “Promoting Fathers’ Engagement With Children: Preventive Interventions for Low-Income Families.” Journal of Marriage and Family 71, no. 3 (2009): 663-79. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2009.00625.x.
16. Popenoe, David. Life without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society. New York: Martin Kessler Books, 1996.