Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences
Institute for American Values, 2005 - 44 pages
More by: Family Scholars
Institute for American Values, 2005 - 44 pages
More by: Family Scholars
In all too many communities in the United States, especially poor and minority ones, marriage is in retreat. The statistics tell part of the story. In 1960, 5 percent of children were born outside of wedlock. Today, 34 percent of children are born outside of wedlock. In 1960, more than 67 percent of adults were married. Today, fewer than 56 percent of adults are married. As a consequence, American children are much less likely to spend their entire childhood in an intact, married family than they were 50 years ago. Likewise, men and women are less likely than they were 50 years ago to get married as a young adult and stay married. The bottom line is this: The institution of marriage has less of a hold over American men, women, and children than it did earlier in the last century.
These trends are even more dramatic in minority and lower income communities. In 2002, 68 percent of African American births and 44 percent of Latino births were out of wedlock, compared to 29 percent of white births. Similarly, although only about 5 percent of college-educated mothers have children out of wedlock, approximately 25 percent of mothers without a high school degree have children outside marriage. Most of the women in the latter group hail from low-income families. African Americans and men and women without college degrees are also significantly more likely to divorce than their Anglo college-educated peers.
The changes that have swept over American families in the last two generations have inspired a large body of social scientific research and a growing number of marriage education programs aimed at better preparing couples for marriage and better equipping couples with the knowledge, values, and skills required for successful marriage in today's world. This report, the second edition of Why Marriage Matters, is an attempt to summarize the research into a succinct form useful to Americans on all sides of ongoing family debates – to report what we know about the importance of marriage for our families and for our society.
What does the social science tell us? In addition to reviewing research on family topics covered in the first edition of the report, this report highlights five new themes in marriage-related research.
In summarizing marriage-related findings, we acknowledge that social science is better equipped to document whether certain social facts are true than to say why they are true. We can assert more definitively that marriage is associated with powerful social goods than that marriage is the sole or main cause of these goods.
Good research seeks to tease out "selection effects," or the pre-existing differences between individuals who marry, become unwed parents, or divorce. Does divorce cause poverty, for example, or is it simply that poor people are more likely to divorce? Good social science attempts to distinguish between causal relationships and mere correlations in a variety of ways. The studies cited here are for the most part based on large, nationally representative samples that control for race, education, income, and other confounding factors. In many, but not all cases, social scientists have been able to use longitudinal data to track individuals as they marry, divorce, or stay single, increasing our confidence that marriage itself matters. Where the evidence is, in our view, overwhelming that marriage causes increases in well-being, we say so. Where the causal pathways are not as well understood, we are more cautious.
We recognize that, absent random assignment to marriage, divorce, or single parenting, social scientists must always acknowledge the possibility that other factors are influencing outcomes. Reasonable scholars may and do disagree on the existence and extent of such selection effects and the extent to which marriage is causally related to the better social outcomes reported here.
Nevertheless, scholarship is getting better in addressing selection effects. For instance, in this report we summarize two divorce studies that follow identical and non-identical adult twins in Australia to see to what extent the effects of divorce on their children are genetic and to what extent the effects of divorce on their children seem to be a consequence of divorce itself. Methodological innovations like these, as well as complex analyses using econometric models, are affording us greater confidence that family structure exercises a causal influence for some outcomes.
Of course individual circumstances vary. While divorce is associated with increased risks of serious psychological and social problems for children, for example, about 75 percent of children of divorce do not suffer such problems (compared to approximately 90 percent of children from intact families). While marriage is a social good, not all marriages are equal. Research does not generally support the idea that remarriage is better for children than living with a single mother. Unhappy marriages do not have the same benefits as the average marriage. Divorce or separation provides an important escape hatch for children and adults in violent or high-conflict marriages. Families, communities, and policy makers interested in distributing the benefits of marriage more equally must do more than merely discourage legal divorce.
Despite its inherent limitations, good social science is a better guide to social policy than uninformed opinion or prejudice. The public and policy makers deserve to hear what research suggests about the consequences of marriage and its absence for children and adults. This report represents our best judgment of what the current social science evidence reveals about the importance of marriage in our social system.
Here are our three fundamental conclusions:
Family structure and processes are of course only one factor contributing to child and social well-being. Our discussion here is not meant to minimize the importance of other social and economic factors, such as poverty, child support, unemployment, teenage childbearing, neighborhood safety, or the quality of education for both parents and children. Marriage is not a panacea for all of our social ills. For instance, when it comes to child well-being, research suggests that family structure is a better predictor of children's psychological and social welfare, whereas poverty is a better predictor of children's educational attainment.
But whether American society and, indeed, the world, succeeds or fails in building a healthy marriage culture is clearly a matter of legitimate public concern. In particular, marriage is an issue of paramount importance if we wish to help the most vulnerable members of our society: the poor, minorities, and children.
Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition comes from a team of family scholars chaired by W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia, William Doherty of the University of Minnesota, Norval Glenn of the University of Texas, and Linda Waite of the University of Chicago. The project is sponsored by the Institute for American Values.
© 2005, Institute for American Values