Family Structure Matters — Science Proves It


It’s been a rough two weeks for the family-structure denialists, those progressive academics (Philip Cohen, “How to Live in a World Where Marriage Is in Decline”), journalists (Katie Roiphe, “New York Times, Stop Moralizing About Single Mothers”), and pundits (Matthew Yglesias, “The ‘Decline’ of Marriage Isn’t a Problem”) who seek to minimize or deny the importance of marriage and family structure. That’s because three new pieces of scholarship — a journal, a report, and a study — were released this month that solidify the growing scientific consensus that marriage and family structure matter for children, families, and the nation as a whole.

On October 14, Princeton University and Brookings released a new issue of The Future of Children, focused on marriage and child well-being. After reviewing family research over the last decade, the issue’s big takeaway, co-authored by Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan and Brookings economist Isabel Sawhill, was this:

Whereas most scholars now agree that children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms across a wide range of outcomes, there is less consensus about why. Is it the quality of parenting? Is it the availability of additional resources (time and money)? Or is it just that married parents have different attributes than those who aren’t married? Thus a major theme we address in this issue is why marriage matters for child wellbeing. Although definitive answers to these questions continue to elude the research community, we’ve seen a growing appreciation of how these factors interact, and all of them appear to be involved.

In other words, although scholars are not exactly sure why marriage matters for children, they know that marriage does matter for them.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post spotlighted a new report, Strong Families, Prosperous States: Do Healthy Families Affect the Wealth of States?, that highlights the macroeconomic associations between marriage and state economies. The report, which I co-authored with economists Robert Lerman and Joseph Price for the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, shows that states with higher levels of married parenthood enjoy higher levels of growth, economic mobility for children growing up poor, and median family income, along with markedly lower levels of child poverty.

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When we compare states in the top quintile of married-parent families with those in the bottom quintile, we find that being in the top quintile is associated with a $1,451 higher per capita GDP, 10.5 percent greater upward income mobility for children from lower-income families, a 13.2 percent decline in the child-poverty rate, and a $3,654 higher median family income. And because we control for a range of factors — from the educational and racial composition of a state to its tax policies and spending on education — that might otherwise confound the familyeconomy link at the state level, we believe that marriage trends are having an impact on state prosperity. Indeed, for three of our four outcomes, as the Washington Post noted, “the share of parents who are married in a state is a better predictor of that state’s economic health than the racial composition and educational attainment of the state’s residents.”

Take the state-by-state health of the American Dream. The figure above, which shows how far up the income distribution children raised at the 25th percentile end up as 30-year-old adults, indicates that lower-income children typically rise higher in adulthood in states with more married parents than in states with fewer married parents. So children from states with lots of married parents — Minnesota, North Dakota, and Utah, for example — typically land at the 47th percentile or higher as adults. By contrast, children hailing from states with comparatively few married parents, such as Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina, generally don’t even reach the 40th percentile as adults. These patterns are consistent with Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s observation that “the strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure.” Indeed, on this outcome, we found that married parenthood was a stronger predictor of economic mobility than was a state’s racial composition or the share of its population that is college-educated.

Not surprisingly, a similar pattern unfolds when it comes to child poverty. As the figure above shows, child poverty is comparatively rare in states with lots of married parents, and much more common in states with fewer married parents. So one reason that New Mexico and Louisiana, for example, rank No. 1 and No. 2 in child poverty is that they have comparatively few families headed by married parents. Likewise, child poverty is comparatively rare in New Hampshire and North Dakota, in part because the vast majority of kids in these states live with married parents. And, here again, we find that married parenthood is a better predictor of child poverty than are the racial composition and educational attainment of the states. So much for the idea that marriage per se doesn’t matter.

Although scholars are not exactly sure why marriage matters for children, they know that marriage does matter for them.

Yesterday, the news was even worse for the family-structure denialists, after the New York Times highlighted a major new study from MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues showing that less-advantaged boys are floundering in school and society — and more so than their less-advantaged female peers — in part because, compared with more-advantaged boys, they are less likely to grow up in a married home with their father. In particular, compared with their sisters, less-advantaged boys “have a higher incidence of truancy and behavioral problems throughout elementary and middle school, exhibit higher rates of behavioral and cognitive disability, perform worse on standardized tests, are less likely to graduate high school, and are more likely to commit serious crimes as juveniles.”

#share#One big reason for this growing gender gap in educational, behavioral, and social outcomes between less-advantaged boys and girls is that boys are often hit harder by the absence of married parents and of a father than are girls, according to Autor’s new study. That’s a big issue today in America, because marriage is much weaker in poor and working-class communities than it is in more-educated and affluent ones. For instance, in their study of more than 1 million Florida children, they find that the “boy–girl gap in suspensions is far smaller in families where children are born to married parents” and that the gender gap in high-school graduation is smaller for children whose parents are married than for children in single-mother homes.

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The figure below, taken from their study, is illustrative of their findings. It shows that the gender gaps in school readiness for kindergarten and in absences from school are smaller when a child’s parents are married or the father is present. In fact, boys outperform girls in math in married families, but underperform them when dad is absent from the home.

Figure: Boy–Girl Gaps in Kindergarten Readiness, School Absences, and Math Scores by Family Structure 

Source: David Autor, David Figlio, Krzysztof Karbownik, Jeffrey Roth, and Melanie Wasserman, “Family Disadvantage and the Gender Gap in Behavioral and Educational Outcomes,” October 21, 2015. The effect of family structure on absence is statistically significant, net of controls.

The bottom line: Since the 1970s, a range of scholars, journalists, and pundits have sought to minimize the emotional, social, and economic fallout of the nation’s retreat from marriage, a retreat that has hit poor and working-class families and children especially hard. This is not to say that family structure is the only thing that matters: The research, including Autor’s new study, also tells us that factors such as class, race, and the quality and stability of family life — not just family structure — play a major role in affecting the welfare of children and families.

But with study after study showing that children, families, and now even states benefit from strong and stable married families, the job of those who would seek to deny that marriage and family structure also play an important role — the family-structure denialists — is getting harder and harder. That’s because the facts just aren’t with those who seek to deny the scientific evidence that family change is having a major impact on our social environment and — in particular — our boys.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, directs the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. You can follow him on Twitter here: @WilcoxNMP.

W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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