cosby showThe Cosby Show in the 1980s linked marriage with prosperity for the black family.


Looking back, there are some things not to like about the year 1980: the persistence of the Soviet empire, apartheid in South Africa, women’s power suits… But there is one thing from that year that could do us a lot of good today: the number of parents who were married. 

In 1980, when the sexual revolution and the expansion of the welfare state had already made inroads into the western family, 78 percent of American families with children still had married parents. By 2012 that figure had declined to 66 percent. While many people may regret this, few appreciate how much this particular social change has contributed to hardship among low-income families. But a new report published by the American Enterprise Institute and the Family Studies Institute shows it is a very important factor. The authors say:

We estimate that the growth in median income of families with children would be 44 percent higher if the United States enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood today. Further, at least 32 percent of the growth in family-income inequality since 1979 among families with children and 37 percent of the decline in men’s employment rates during that time can be linked to the decreasing number of Americans who form and maintain stable, married families.

For richer, for poorer: how family structures economic success in America, is the work of W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute. They point out that standard portrayals of family hardship arising in the midst of income inequality and joblessness ignore the part that family structure plays in it all.

“This is an important oversight,” they say, “because, as this report shows, changes in family formation and stability are central to the changing economic landscape of American families, to the declining economic status of men, and to worries about the health of the American dream.”

And not just the American dream. Families the world over are suffering from the same plague – though not equally. It’s poorer and less educated people who have been steadily retreating from marriage over the past three decades and who are suffering most as a result.

For this reason Wilcox and Lerman maintain that marriage is worth fighting for. “We really can’t afford not to.” And while there’s a moral and cultural argument for that struggle that also needs to be addressed, their argument is based solidly on evidence. And the evidence is that a strong marriage culture would significantly boost the economic fortunes of ordinary people. 

The authors acknowledge that their study cannot definitely prove this, since most of the evidence they review is “descriptive and does not derive from a causal model”. There are other social and individual factors that have a bearing on economic wellbeing, and in some cases, such as prolonged unemployment of a partner, marriage may have a negative effect on finances. “Nevertheless,” they say, “the evidence is widespread and consistent enough to suggest strong, causal positive roles for being raised in an intact family and for current marriage on a range of important economic outcomes for the average American.”

Here, from the executive summary of the report, are their main findings:

Intact family premium

Growing up with both parents (in an intact family) is strongly associated with more education, work, and income among today’s young men and women. Young men and women from intact families enjoy an annual “intact-family premium” that amounts to $6,500 and $4,700, respectively, over the incomes of their peers from single-parent families.

Marriage premium

Men obtain a substantial “marriage premium” and women bear no marriage penalty in their individual incomes, and both men and women enjoy substantially higher family incomes, compared to peers with otherwise similar characteristics. For instance, men enjoy a marriage premium of at least $15,900 per year in their individual income compared to their single peers.

Second generation family premium

These two trends reinforce each other. Growing up with both parents increases your odds of becoming highly educated, which in turn leads to higher odds of being married as an adult. Both the added education and marriage result in higher income levels. Indeed, men and women who were raised with both parents present and then go on to marry enjoy an especially high income as adults. Men and women who are currently married and were raised in an intact family enjoy an annual “family premium” in their household income that exceeds that of their unmarried peers who were raised in non-intact families by at least $42,000.

Across race and educational divides

The advantages of growing up in an intact family and being married extend across the population. They apply about as much to blacks and Hispanics as they do to whites. For instance, black men enjoy a marriage premium of at least $12,500 in their individual income compared to their single peers. The advantages also apply, for the most part, to men and women who are less educated. For instance, men with a high-school degree or less enjoy a marriage premium of at least $17,000 compared to their single peers.

So, how can leaders encourage married families?

Given the economic importance of strong and stable families, policy makers, business executives and owners, and civic leaders should experiment with a range of public and private policies to strengthen and stabilize marriage and family life in the United States. Such efforts should focus on poor and working-class Americans, who have been most affected by the nation’s retreat from marriage. Specifically:

Eliminate marriage penalties

Public policy should “do no harm” when it comes to marriage. Accordingly, policymakers should eliminate or reduce marriage penalties embedded in many of the nation’s tax and transfer policies designed to serve lower-income Americans and their families.

Increase family tax breaks and strengthen job prospects of the less educated

Federal and state policy should strengthen the economic foundations of middle- and lower-income family life in three ways: (a) increase the child credit to $3,000 and extend it to both income and payroll taxes; (b) expand the maximum earned income tax credit for single, childless adults to $1,000, increasing their marriageability; and (c) expand and improve vocational education and apprenticeship programs that would strengthen the job prospects of less-educated young adults.

Promote the “success sequence” of schooling, work, marriage, then parenthood

Civic institutions—joined by a range of private and public partners, from businesses to state governments to public schools—should launch a national campaign around a “success sequence” that would encourage young adults to sequence schooling, work, marriage, and then parenthood. This campaign would stress the ways children are more likely to flourish when they are born to married parents with a secure economic foundation.

Read or download the full report: For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America  

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet