WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 29, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The social impact of marriage is at the center of debates in many countries. Same-sex marriage, divorce, unmarried mothers and other issues divide public opinion. The journal The Future of Children dedicated its summer issue to the theme “Marriage and Child Well-being” and sheds light on the problems.
In its introduction to the issue, the journal, published by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, noted that roughly half of all U.S. children born today are expected to live apart from a parent before they reach age 18. The numbers are even higher among African-American children.
The decline in two-parent families has been closely linked with a rise in child poverty, the journal said. Moreover, the changes in marriage and the family “appear to be depriving children of such documented benefits of marriage as better physical and emotional health and greater socioeconomic attainment.”
The link between families and income is examined in the article “For Love and Money? The Impact of Family Structure on Family Income,” by Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill. The authors are, respectively, a Ph.D. candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University, and the director of the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution.
They conclude that increases in single parenthood have reduced children’s economic well-being. Moreover, children in cohabiting households, although they tend to fare better economically than those in lone-parent households, are worse off than those in married-parent households.
Although some single parents, 38% in 2001, receive economic support from the absent parent, this is far below the amount of money a married spouse would bring home to the family.
The article also noted the phenomenon of the “wage premium” for married men. One study found that, after controlling for such characteristics as work experience and education, married men’s weekly wages are between 16% and 35% higher than those of separated, divorced and never-married men.
A part of this difference might be explainable because men with greater earning power are more attractive marriage partners. But other studies indicated that, at most, only half of the difference is due to this factor. A review of many studies leads to the conclusion that marriage directly raises the wages of men between 5% and 10%.
Thomas and Sawhill also found that a large body of evidence demonstrates that children born to unmarried mothers are more likely to be poor than are other youngsters. This holds true even after controlling for race, family background, age, education and employment status.
Studies have assessed the extent to which the decline in marriage and the spread of single parenthood over time have contributed to the growth of child poverty. With some exceptions, these studies generally find that most, and in some cases all, of the increase in child poverty over the past 30 to 40 years can be explained by changes in family structure.
The economic advantages of marriage could be even greater if it were not for a fiscal system that in many cases penalizes married couples. This point is made by Adam Carasso, a research associate at the Urban Institute, and C. Eugene Steuerle, a co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.
In their article, “The Hefty Penalty on Marriage Facing Many Households with Children,” they noted that when a single parent earning the minimum wage marries another worker at minimum wage, they lose several thousand dollars of food stamp benefits. This “marriage penalty” operates in different ways, including losing medical benefits, or being pushed into higher income tax brackets.
Carasso and Steuerle conclude that most households with children who have an income under $40,000 are significantly penalized for getting married. Consequently, “cohabitating has become the tax shelter of the poor.” Reforming this situation will not be easy, they added, due to the multitude of laws governing welfare benefits and taxes. In recent years Congress has made some changes to reduce the marriage penalty, but much remains to be done.
Paul Amato, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, looks at some social aspects related to marriage. In his article, “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation,” he looked at the impact of divorce on children.
Well-being of children
Debate over the differing results of studies in this area abounds, he noted. But a recent meta-analysis done by Amato, based on 67 studies conducted during the 1990s, found that children with divorced parents, on average, scored significantly lower on various measures of well-being than did youngsters with continuously married parents.
The differences between the two groups were modest rather than large, he commented. This had been the case in past decades also. Nevertheless, he observed that the more recent meta-analyses revealed that the negative impact of divorce on children continued in the 1990s, when divorce had become common and widely accepted. Other analyses also reveal that the differences in well-being persist well into adulthood.
Children born outside marriage have been studied less frequently than have children of divorce. But the data show that the former are more likely than children living with continuously married parents to experience a variety of cognitive, emotional and behavioral problems.
Another question is whether remarrying will improve the situation for children. Adding a stepfather to the household usually improves children’s standard of living, Amato admitted. But studies consistently indicate that children in stepfamilies exhibit more problems than do youngsters with continuously married parents and about the same number of problems as do kids with single parents.
Amato concluded by noting that an aging society will become increasingly dependent on a declining number of young adults. In this context it is urgent to take steps that will increase the numbers of well-adjusted children growing up with two married parents.
Crime and the family
The recent articles in the journal The Future of Children are just part of the vast amount of research showing how important marriage and the family are for society. A study published Sept. 21 by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Marriage and Public Policy examined the relationship between family structures and crime. The paper, “Can Married Parents Prevent Crime?” reviewed 23 recent U.S. studies published between 2000 and June.
The investigation revealed that all but three studies found some family-structure effects on crime or delinquency. The research strongly suggests both that young adults and teens raised in single-parent homes are more likely to commit crimes.
Another recent example is the study published Monday by the New York-based Institute for American Values. “The Consequences of Marriage for African-Americans” is a report based on reviews of 125 social science articles and a statistical analysis of national survey data.
The study found that marriage is highly beneficial for black males throughout their life. Black females also appear to derive very important benefits from marriage, though less than males do, according to the press release announcing the study.
Another finding is that marriage is profoundly important to the economic well-being of black families, often meaning the difference between living above or below the poverty line. All the more reason for governments, churches and society to do all they can to promote marriage and the family.