Throughout the presidential campaign, we’ve heard considerable debate about which candidate would best improve conditions for women, the working class, and children. But we’ve heard far too little discussion from both sides about the central role that family structure—and in particular marriage—plays in boosting the social and economic well-being of Americans. As our new president looks toward leading a divided nation, he would be wise to consider the evidence and make marriage a central part of the national policy agenda.
That’s because a healthy marriage culture is associated with greater economic mobility, safer communities, and the ability to form and maintain healthy marriages in adulthood. In general, the presence of more married-parent families brings a host of social and economic benefits to individuals and society that should not be ignored.
First, we know that the presence or absence of marriage impacts economic well-being, particularly for women and children. Children raised by married parents are significantly less likely to experience poverty, whereas single-mother families are over five times as likely to be poor. Additionally, the majority of homeless families are headed by unmarried mothers.
Research also links stable, married families to more prosperous states. A study by IFS Senior Fellow W. Bradford Wilcox, Robert Lerman, and Joseph Price found that larger shares of married-parent families at the state level are linked to greater economic mobility, higher family incomes, and less child poverty.
Likewise, married-parent families boost the academic prospects of students, especially boys. Research has consistently confirmed that a child’s home environment (family structure, parental education, and family income) is more closely associated with student success than school resources and spending. And a new study by Wilcox and Nicholas Zill found that “the share of families headed by married couples is a more powerful predictor of high school graduation and school suspension rates than are income, race, and ethnicity in Florida.”
Married-parent families also improve the safety of women and children and communities. In general, unmarried women, including those in cohabiting relationships, are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than married women. And hands down, the safest place for a child to grow up is with his or her own married mother and father, while a child living with an unmarried mother and live-in boyfriend is the most vulnerable to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. In addition to safer families, violent crime is significantly less common in communities and states with larger shares of married-parent families.
Moreover, family structure affects teen pregnancy and unmarried births. We know for example that girls who grow up in single-mother families are more likely to engage in early sexual activity and to experience a teen pregnancy. Conversely, children who grow up in a married-parent family are more likely to form lasting marriages as adults and to raise their own children within a married union.
We also know that family fragmentation, including divorce, is especially harmful to children. Although the suffering sometimes manifests itself in less visible ways, it deserves to be acknowledged. Importantly, the harms of divorce are not just seen in lower income families; research shows that even privileged kids suffer when families break down.
Finally, the growing marriage divide between the college-educated and the poor and working class is at least part of what’s driving economic and social inequality in our nation. Because the college-educated are more likely to get married and less likely to divorce than less-educated Americans, they are more likely to reap the benefits of marriage, including better education, higher incomes, and family stability for their kids. Meanwhile, marriage is in retreat among the less educated and working class, who are more likely to be raising children outside of marriage, and to suffer the negative effects of family instability, including poverty. Bridging the marriage divide is an important part of efforts to boost economic mobility for all Americans.
In light of the overwhelming evidence linking marriage to better social and economic outcomes for adults, children, and society, the new president ought to focus on policies that create opportunities for marriage to thrive. This blog has featured a number of pro-family policy proposals over the years, including:
- Reducing or eliminating marriage penalties in means-tested programs so as not to discourage some lower-income couples from marrying.
- Expanding apprenticeships and vocational training programs at the state and local levels to strengthen the job possibilities for young men and women who will not pursue college degrees.
- Expanding the child tax credit.
- Including one-earner families with stay-at-home parents—who account for one-third of American families—in policies aimed at helping families with childcare expenses.
- Reforming divorce laws, such as through modest waiting periods for divorcing parents.
- Promoting the importance of marriage and married-parenthood among young people through education campaigns or programs that encourage the pursuit of the success sequence of school, work, marriage, and then parenthood.
Notably, most Americans recognize the value of marriage to children, families, and society. According to the recent “American Family Survey” conducted by YouGov for Deseret News/BYU, over 50 percent of Americans agree that “society is better off when people are married,” 61 percent believe “marriage is needed to build strong families,” and 65 percent agree that “marriage makes children and families better off financially.”
The evidence for the benefits of a healthy marriage culture to our nation’s social and economic well-being is clear. The question that is now before us is: what will the new president do with that information and how will he govern on families? By promoting policies that strengthen marriage for all Americans, particularly among those where marriage is in retreat, we can build a nation where the promise of the American dream is within reach for everyone.
Alysse ElHage writes for the Institute for Family Studies blog, where this article was first published. It is reproduced here with permission.