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Why Marriage Should Be a National Priority

Why Marriage Should Be a National Priority


Earlier this year, I was at a conference on fighting poverty, and a member of the audience asked a question that made the experts visibly uncomfortable.

“What about family structure?” he asked. “Single-parent families are more likely to be poor than two-parent ones. Does family structure play a role in poverty?”

The scholar to whom the question was directed looked annoyed and struggled to formulate an answer. The panelists shifted in their seats. The moderator stepped in, quickly pointing out that poverty makes it harder for people to form stable marriages. She promptly called on someone else.

I sighed. As an economist who studies inequality and families, I have often found myself in the same position as the questioner. I have suggested in similar settings that we need to consider how marriage and household structure affect children’s life outcomes, only to be met with annoyance or evasion.

Academics like me tend to be uncomfortable discussing these issues in policy conversations, because we don’t want to come across as shaming anyone, particularly single mothers. We find it much easier to talk about things like government-transfer programs, tax codes, wage subsidies, and public schools as opposed to marriage and family formation. Most of us don’t want to appear judgmental or meddlesome.

I am keenly aware that behind every data point is a person or a family, people with their own unique stories and experiences. Although economics is great for describing aggregate trends or identifying the cause and effect behind them, such analysis can fall short when it comes to acknowledging exceptions, including the nuance—both wonderful and messy—of people’s actual lives. Plenty of low-income single parents raise successful children, who go on to earn high wages and have families of their own. But as a whole, those children must overcome significant challenges that children raised by married parents do not. Denying that marriage has major consequences for the economic and social well-being of individuals and society is dishonest and counterproductive, especially when it comes to how children are being raised.

Children require a lot of time, money, and energy. In general, married parents are much more likely to live together with their children than unmarried parents, and two-parent households typically have more resources to take care of children than one-parent households do. Research shows that children from married-parent homes tend to exhibit fewer behavioral problems, get in trouble less often at school or with the law, achieve higher levels of education, earn higher incomes, and have higher rates of marriage themselves. These benefits do not simply reflect the fact that richer people tend to marry at higher rates. Children of married parents generally have better outcomes even when controlling for the age, race, and education level of the mother.

Still, there’s no denying that low-income adults are more likely to become single parents, making it more challenging for their children to climb the economic ladder. Two-parent households are now a luxury more commonly found among the college-educated. We can examine the social and economic factors that contribute to this reality without blaming single parents or diminishing the hard work they put into raising their children. U.S. children have the unfortunate distinction of being the most likely in the world to live with only one parent. We should treat marriage as a serious policy issue worth promoting, through both economic and social efforts.

Over the past 40 years, a large class divide in marriage and family structure has emerged. College-educated adults have experienced rising earnings, and they generally have continued to get married (typically to other college graduates), raising their children in two-parent homes. (I use education as a proxy for socioeconomic status in my work.) At the same time, wages among adults without college degrees have stagnated, and employment rates have declined. This group of adults has become less likely to marry and more likely to establish one-parent households. The benefits that married, college-educated parents provide for their children have created a cyclical effect: Income inequality across households has risen in the past few decades by more than it would have from the widened gap in earnings alone.

The decline in marriage and the rise in single-mother homes outside the college-educated class has been driven in part by changes that have hurt non-college-educated men in the labor market, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs. Multiple studies document a causal link between the economic struggles of men and the growth in single-mother families. For instance, a 2019 paper showed that a reduction in U.S. manufacturing jobs—which historically employed many men and provided good wages—resulted in a decline in marriage rates and a rise in single-mother households, along with a rise in child poverty in affected communities. This has had particularly large negative effects on Black communities, according to another paper published two years later.

Put simply, the idea is that as some men have become less reliable as financial providers for their family, the value proposition of marriage between a man and a woman has fallen. Perhaps the affected men themselves are deciding they don’t want to get married because they can’t provide for a family. Or maybe women are deciding they’re better off providing for themselves and their children, rather than setting up a household with a man who is often out of work and might bring other personal struggles to the relationship. Either way, the decline in marriage outside the college-educated class has weakened economic security and exacerbated inequality.

To be clear, the economic progress made by women over these decades should not be lamented—even though it has made women less financially dependent on men, and in that sense has contributed to the move away from marriage. Two things can be true at once: The economic advances made by women have been a good thing, and the loss of jobs and stability for many men has been very damaging.

To give disadvantaged children better futures, policy makers should promote widespread employment and economic security among a wider segment of the population—particularly non-college-educated men. This would help bolster the formation of stable, two-parent families.

For many years, I thought improving the economic prospects of less educated men was the key to reversing these demographic trends. But, as I discovered through research I conducted in 2018 with my colleague Riley Wilson, the downward economic turn that many men have experienced is not the only issue. Social expectations regarding childbearing and marriage also need to shift. Wilson and I looked at how local fracking booms across the country affected family formation. Unlike other economic shocks, such as increased imports from China and the adoption of industrial robots, localized fracking booms increased jobs and earnings for non-college-educated men. We expected this to lead to a rise in marriage and a reduction in nonmarital childbearing. We were wrong. Births went up, which tends to happen when people get more money. But they increased in similar proportions among married and unmarried mothers, and there was no increase in marriage.

Our research may be indicative of a feedback loop between economic and social forces. During the coal boom of the 1970s and ’80s—when the link between marriage and having children was much tighter—the rise in male earnings led to an increase in marriage and a decrease in the nonmarital birth share. Now that link has been severed in many communities, so something that increases birth rates—such as growth in income—doesn’t necessarily create a rise in marriage rates or births only among married adults. Restoring the prevalence of married, two-parent homes will almost surely require both economic and social changes.

Some people are resigned to see marriage and the two-parent family as dying institutions and think policy makers should accept that reality. All the government needs to do, they say, is substantially increase income transfers to single-parent homes. That is the wrong approach. Just as we don’t accept that college is only for the well-off, a healthy marriage and a two-parent family should not be out of reach for large segments of society. A massive inequality element is at play here, and it is both cause and effect. Economically insecure adults have more barriers to forming stable marriages and two-parent homes, making them more likely to have and raise children outside a long-term committed partnership. As a result, their children are less likely to experience the benefits of a two-parent home, meaning they have fewer opportunities and worse educational and economic opportunities. These disadvantages are compounded and transmitted across generations.

I do think the government should increase income assistance to economically struggling individuals and families, both married and single. But no government check—even one much larger than what’s politically feasible in the U.S. today—is going to make up for the absence of a supportive, loving, employed second parent in the home. Many low-income adults say they want to create and sustain healthy family relationships. We need to strengthen their ability to do so.

Numerous nonprofit and community groups run programs around the country with the goal of strengthening families among low-income and vulnerable populations. Such programs take a multitude of approaches. Some promote the positive engagement of fathers, including nonresident fathers, in their children’s lives. Others help people manage the transition back to family life after a parent has been incarcerated, or offer classes for unmarried parents looking to improve their relationship and their approach to raising children. But limited public funding is available for such programs, because promoting strong and stable families has not been widely accepted as a national policy goal.

However, funding alone is an insufficient solution if there is no data on the best ways to encourage and sustain healthy, two-parent households. Gathering evidence in this sphere will give policy makers the tools to help struggling adults achieve stable marriages and, when marriage is not a good option, help those adults maintain strong co-parenting relationships for the sake of their children. Researchers are already doing great work on how to improve early-childhood education and increase college-completion rates. The same energy should be put into studying how to effectively strengthen families.

The number of parents in a home is a crucial determinant of a child’s experiences and life trajectory. Debates about this issue should not be relegated to the culture wars. Family structure is an urgent policy matter, and we should treat it that way.


This article has been adapted from Melissa S. Kearney’s book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.


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