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Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005

For Love and Money? The Impact of Family Structure on Family Income
Adam Thomas Isabel Sawhill

Summary

What do the half-century decline in U.S. marriage and the attendant rise in single parenthood mean for the economic well-being of children, especially children living in single-parent families?

Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill show how differing living arrangements can be expected to affect families' economic well-being. Married-parent and cohabiting households, for example, can benefit from economies of scale and from having two adult earners. The availability of child support for single-parent families and the marriage penalties in the tax and transfer system reduce but rarely completely offset the economic benefits of marriage.

Consistent with these expectations, national data on family income show that across all races and for a variety of income measures, children in lone-parent families (single-parent households with no cohabiter) have less family income and are more likely to be poor than children in married-parent families. Cohabiting families are generally better off economically than lone-parent families, but considerably worse off than married-parent families.

Thomas and Sawhill acknowledge the possibility that the link between family structure and family resources may not be causal. But new research that simulates marriages between existing single mothers and unattached men with similar characteristics suggests that family structure does affect family resources and that child poverty rates would drop substantially if these mothers were to marry.

It does not necessarily follow, however, that policymakers ought to, or even can, do anything about family structure. Marriage is not an economic cure-all for the complex problem of child poverty. It would be a mistake for policymakers to focus on promoting marriage to the exclusion of encouraging and rewarding work or addressing problems such as early out-of-wedlock childbearing. Still, Thomas and Sawhill conclude that a continuation of recent declines in single parenthood, linked most recently to declines in teen and out-of-wedlock births, offers great promise for improving the economic welfare of U.S. children.