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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Decreasing Nonmarital Births and Strengthening Marriage to Reduce Poverty
Paul R. Amato Rebecca A. Maynard

How Marriage Promotes the Economic Well-being of Children

Both theory and logic support the view that marriage contributes to the economic wellbeing of children and families—and a great deal of empirical research backs that view as well. Studies by Robert Lerman, for example, show that the economic benefits of marriage are evident across all socioeconomic groups— especially among black families.6

One obvious reason for these benefits is economies of scale. Married couples can share expenses, such as rent and utilities, and use the savings to support a higher standard of living or to invest for the future. In 2005 a mother who earned $13,461 and had one child would live exactly at the poverty threshold. A single man who earned $10,160 also would live exactly at the poverty threshold. But if the two were to marry and live together, their combined earnings would place them 50 percent above the poverty threshold.7

Marriage also gives a household two potential workers rather than one. In 2004, 59 percent of married mothers with children under the age of six and 76 percent of married mothers with children between the ages of six and seventeen were in the labor force.8 Clearly, it has become normative for married mothers to contribute to household income, and having two earners substantially increases a family’s standard of living. In 2000, for example, the median family income among married couples in which both spouses were aged fifty-five or younger was $55,000 if the husband only was employed, $62,500 if the wife worked part time (thirty-four or less hours a week), and $70,000 if she worked full time (thirty-five or more hours a week).9 Having two earners also buffers the household economy if one earner should become jobless or temporarily disabled.

Two-parent families have more flexibility in how they divide their time between home and market production. Two parents can decide that one should specialize in home production, while the other maximizes earnings by devoting more time to work-related activities (including commuting)—an arrangement that also makes it easier for the working spouse to cope with job-related stress.10

People who are married—wives as well as husbands—also enjoy better physical and mental health than do single people.11 The health advantages appear to be due partly to the social support provided by a spouse. Married people also tend to take better care of themselves. Following marriage, men in particular tend to decrease their use of alcohol and drugs. Good mental and physical health, in turn, promotes productivity at work and economic security.

Married couples also receive more assistance from their extended family, on average, than do single parents or cohabiting couples. The assistance might take the form of gifts, such as wedding presents; help with a down payment for a home; or care for children, which reduces child care expenses for the couple.12

Marriage appears to provide especially important benefits for single mothers, many of whom are young and poor. A study based on the National Longitudinal Study of Family Growth found that single mothers who married tended to benefit economically, regardless of family background, education, or race.

Moreover, single mothers who married were substantially less likely to experience poverty than those who remained unmarried. Marriage, the study shows, provides an escape from poverty for many young mothers.13

In principle, cohabiting couples could enjoy the same economic well-being as married couples. In practice, however, they are less likely to share income than are married couples and, because most cohabitating relationships are short-lived, the couples have less time to accumulate wealth. Nor do cohabiting couples get as much economic assistance from their families.

Some of the differences in the well-being of married-couple and single-parent or cohabiting- couple families may be attributable to “selection.” That is, some of the personal qualities that contribute to labor market success and wealth accumulation—a good education, a strong work ethic, good physical health, and positive psychological adjustment—may also make certain people more likely to find and keep a marriage partner. Indeed, research shows that people with high levels of human capital, occupational status, and earnings are more likely to marry—a trend that holds for women as well as for men.14 But although selection contributes to the advantages of married-couple families, the best available evidence suggests that marriage enhances economic well-being above and beyond the characteristics that spouses may bring to the union. That is, even for people whose employment history, education, health, and family background are comparable, married couples still tend to earn more income and accumulate more wealth than do single or cohabiting people.15

Just as marriage confers economic advantage, divorce carries with it economic disadvantage. Although studies show that low income and perceived economic stress increase tension in marriage and increase the risk of divorce, divorce usually erodes the economic well-being of custodial mothers and their children.16 Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur found that median household income for custodial-parent households declined 40 percent, on average, during the five years following divorce. Moreover, the decline in economic well-being held for poorly educated and highly educated couples alike.17 Other research has estimated that divorce increases by 46 percent the likelihood that families with children will be poor.18 The economic well-being of divorced families is further eroded by the division of property between former spouses, which lowers accumulated assets.19 Replacing lost assets is difficult, if not impossible, with only a single parent and wage earner in the household.