First Things First
For Richer, For Poorer
Does marriage matter? That question has been bantered around for decades.
For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America, research by Dr. Brad Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and Robert Lerman, professor of economics at American University, examined how family structure impacts the economic fortunes of Americans and their families.
Their conclusion: the institution of marriage is key to productive adulthood, a cornerstone of a stable family and the basic unit of a healthy community.
Five significant findings emerged from this study about the relationships between family patterns and economic well-being in America:
- The retreat from marriage plays a key role in the changing economic fortunes of American family life. Wilcox and Lerman estimated that the growth of median income of families with children would be 44% higher if the United States enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood today.
- 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” amounting to $6,500 and $4,700 respectively, over the incomes of their peers from single-parent families.
- Men obtain a substantial “marriage premium” and women bear no marriage penalty to their individual incomes, and both men and women enjoy substantially higher family incomes, compared to peers with otherwise similar characteristics.
- Growing up with both parents increases the 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. 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.
- The advantage of growing up in an intact family and being married extends across the population. It applies about as much to blacks and Hispanics as to whites. The advantages also apply, for the most part, to men and women who are less-educated. Men with a high-school diploma or less enjoy a marriage premium of at least $17,000 compared to single peers.
Wilcox and Lerman contend that given the economic importance of strong and stable families, business and civic leaders and policy-makers should be involved in findings ways to strengthen and stabilize marriage and family life in the United States. Lerman and Wilcox believe the efforts should focus on poor and working-class Americans who have been most affected by the nation’s retreat from marriage. Some of the recommendations made by the authors include:
- Public policy should “do no harm” when it comes to marriage. Policymakers should eliminate or reduce marriage penalties.
- Civic institutions, joined by 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.
Lerman and Wilcox contend anyone concerned about family inequality, men’s declining labor-force participation and the vitality of the American dream should worry about the nation’s retreat from marriage.
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