Bradford Wilcox: "The World Family Map Gives Us Insights Into the Unique Family Strengths Found in Different Regions of the World"

18 Sep 2014

Interview with W. Bradford Wilcox, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Wilcox is Codirector of the World Family Map Project, which is sponsored by STI.

What is the World Family Map? Why is it needed?

The World Family Map casts a spotlight on the health of the family, and the welfare of children, around the globe. It does so by tracking key indicators of family and child well-being, and by tackling an important family topic every year. This project is timely because much of the globe is witnessing what The New York Times called the “rise of post-familialism”, where fewer and fewer people put a premium on marriage and/or parenthood. The World Family Map aims to understand how this post-familial cultural tide is shaping the character of contemporary family life, and the welfare of children. It does all this under the direction of Child Trends, a leading nonpartisan research organization, and with the cooperation of think tanks and universities across the world, from the Social Trends Institute to the Institute for Family Studies.

What have you found about single parenthood and family instability around the globe?

One manifestation of post-familialism is that single parenthood and family instability are now more common around much of the globe, especially Europe, the Americas, and parts of Africa. For instance, about one-quarter of children in Colombia, Kenya, the United States, and the United Kingdom live in a single-parent family. Divorce and family break-ups are also common in these regions.

In many countries, but not all, single parenthood and family instability put children at risk. We found in the 2014 World Family Map that children who were exposed to divorce or a parental break-up were significantly more likely to die than children in stable, two-parent families. Specifically, children in much of Latin America, Africa, and Asia were 20 percent more likely to die than children in a stable two-parent family (see the image).

Does the two-parent family provide clear benefits in every region of the world that the World Family Map has explored?

No, not always. It is important to acknowledge that, based on our analyses, the two-parent family is not consistently associated with better outcomes in countries across the globe. The 2013 World Family Map found that children in Nigeria and Kenya, for instance, were more likely to be progressing on-time through school if they lived in a single-parent home, compared to a two-parent home. It may be that fathers are less involved in these countries, or that single-parent homes can draw upon unique kin support in these countries that turn out to be extra helpful to children.

How you would describe the distinctive family strengths of non-Western regions like Africa, Asia, and the Middle East?

One of the fascinating dimensions of this project is that it gives us insights into the unique family strengths found in different regions of the world. For instance, kinship is an exceedingly powerful force in much of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where more than 50 percent of children live with extended family members. And the two-parent family is quite strong in much of the Middle East, given that about 90 percent of children live with two parents in many countries in this region. But it’s also worth noting that the West has its own strengths: in Europe and Oceania, for instance, child poverty is typically low. The bottom line: Anyone taking a careful look at the range of indicators in the World Family Map can find different family strengths in different parts of the world.