January 23rd, 2014
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The case for marriage promotion begins with some perfectly real correlations. Across a variety of measures — household income, self-reported life satisfaction, childrearing outcomes — married couples seem to do better than pairs of singles (and much better than single parents), particularly in populations towards the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. So it is natural to imagine that, if somehow poor people could be persuaded to marry more, they too would enjoy those improvements in household income, life satisfaction, and childrearing. Let them eat wedding cake!
But neither wedding cake nor the marriages they celebrate cause observed “marriage premia” any more than dances on tarmacs caused airplanes landing on Melanesian islands. In fact, for the most part, the evidence we have suggests that marriage is an effect of other things that facilitate good social outcomes rather than a cause on its own. In particular, for poor women, the availability of suitable mates is a binding constraint on marriage behavior. People in actually observed marriages do well because they are the lucky ones to find scarce good mates, not because marriage would be a good thing for everyone else too. Marrying badly, that is marriage followed by subsequent divorce, increases the poverty rate among poor women compared to never marrying at all. Married biological parents who stay together may be good for child rearing, but kids of mothers who marry anyone other than their biological father do no better than children of mothers who never marry at all. As McLanahan and Sigle-Rushton put it (from the abstract):
[U]nmarried mothers and their partners are vastly different from married parents when it comes to age, education, health status and behaviour, employment, and wage rates. These differences translate into important differences in earnings capacities, which, in turn, translate into differences in poverty. Even assuming the same family structure and labour supply, our estimates suggest that much of the difference in poverty outcomes by family structure can be attributed to factors other than marital status. Our results also suggest that full employment is essential to lifting poor families — married or otherwise — out of poverty.
Let’s stop with the litany of citations for a minute and just think like humans. Marriage is a big deal. The stylized fact that the great preponderance of grown-ups with kids who seem economically and socially successful are married is known to everybody, rich and poor, black and white. Yes, the traditional family is not uncontested. There are, in our culture, valorizations of single-parenthood as statements of feminist independence, valorizations of male liberty and libertinism, aspirational valorizations of nontraditional families by until-recently-excluded gay people, etc. But, despite the outsized role played by Kurt on Glee, these alternative visions are numerically marginal, and probably especially marginal among the poor. Single motherhood is the alternative family structure that matters from a social welfare (rather than culture-war) perspective. The problem marriage promotion could solve, if it could solve any problem at all, would be to increase the well-being of the people who currently become single mothers and of their children.