The news on marriage has been a bit gloomy recently. The Pew Research Forum reported in September that 20 percent of adults 25 and older have never been married. Isabel Sawhill has documented a growing trend of single and unplanned parenthood in the Unite States. The outcomes of government programs to strengthen families have been by and large disappointing. These facts and statistics have raised questions about whether marriage is dead, whether marriage can make a come back, or whether we should move beyond marriage.

But in a report released today from the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, “For Richer, for Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America,” W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert Lehrman document economic reasons that marriage is well worth fighting for.

I’ll just share a few of their findings with you.

Two Parent Benefits
Wilcox and Lerhman found that growing up in a two-parent family correlated with many positive outcomes for kids, well into adulthood. For example:

  • Growing up with both parents reduced the probability for dropping out of high school by 15 percent for men and 9 percent for women.
  • Growing up in an intact family reduced women’s chances of becoming single mothers by 12 percent and men’s chances of being nonresidential fathers by 5 percent.
  • Both men and women who grew up in intact families enjoyed substantial marriage premiums. Young men who grew up in intact families earned, on average, more than $6,500 more in personal income and more than $16,000 more in family income than their peers who grew up in single-parent families. Young women from intact families earn more than $4,700 in personal income and more than $12,000 more than their peers from single-parent families.
  • Growing up with both parents also increased young adults chances of marrying themselves. Men who grew up in intact homes were 10 percent more likely to get married than their peers who grew up in single-parent families. Women who grew up in intact homes were 12 percent more likely to marry.

The Marriage Premium
Individuals who grow up in intact homes are more likely to marry and once they do, they are the recipients of a host of benefits associated with being married.

  • Married men age 28–30 earn nearly $16,000 more, on average, than their single peers. Their family income is nearly $22,000 higher than their single peers. And the marriage premium for men extends to less-educated and minority men who are often at a disadvantage in the work force. Married young men with only high-school educations, for example, earned more than $17,000 more than their single peers.
  • While married young women do not enjoy a marriage premium compared to their unmarried peers, they do not suffer a marriage penalty. On average they work, nearly 200 less hours a year than their single peers, while there is no statistically significant difference in married and single women’s salaries. But married women enjoy a sizable marriage premium for their family income. On average, young women’s family income is more than $33,000 more than their single peers.

The Predictive Power of Marriage
Growing up in a stable home and establishing stable homes, the study found, can be as powerful a predictor of income as well known correlates of economic wellbeing like race, ethnicity, and education.

  • Growing up in intact homes, for example, was about as strong a predictor of personal and family income for young men as race/ethnicity and a stronger predictor of income than whether their mother is college educated.
  • For married men age 44–46, for example, marriage is associated with a $18,824 individual income premium and a $44,350 family income premium, while the penalty for being black is -$4,535 for personal income and -$3,014 for family income. For women, Wilcox and Lerhman found that while “education and ethnicity are stronger predictors of individual income for women . . . marriage is a better predictor of family income than are education, race, and ethnicity.”
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Lerhman and Wilcox document various other economic benefits that accrue to individuals who grow up in stable families and form stable families, and from all of their findings a general thesis emerges: The financial fortune of Americans is tied to the fortunes of families.

Is this good or bad news?

On the one hand, if Americans continue to retreat from marriage, especially poorer and less educated Americans, their family structures could reinforce patterns of economic division and cause a downward cycle. As the study notes, “Young men and women from less educated and minority homes are les likely to enjoy the educational, social, and economic benefits associated with being raised by their own married parents.”  They are, in turn, less marriageable. And if they don’t marry they are less likely to reap the economic benefits of marriage and to pass them on to their kids.

On the other hand, Lehrman and Wilcox’s findings suggest a potentially successful path for closing the economic gap and lifting people out of poverty. Marriage is strongly associated with positive economic outcomes both for kids who grow up in intact homes and adults who marry, and the influence of marriage and stable families can even outweigh other negative influences on economic wellbeing.  What’s more, the positive effects of stable families and marriage reinforce each other and reproduce themselves in future generations, as Wilcox and Lerhman note:

Growing up with both parents increases your odds of becoming highly educated, which in turn leads to higher odds of being married as an adult. Both the added education and marriage result in higher income levels. Indeed, men and women who were raised with both parents present and then go on to marry enjoy an especially high income as adults.

If we can encourage and strengthen marriage among lower income and less educated Americans, we might begin a chain reaction of family stability and economic progress.

Wilcox and Lehrman do make recommendations for strengthening lower and middle-class families. They recommend eliminating marriage penalties from the tax code, while increasing the child credit and the earned income credit maximum. They also recommend improving vocational training and launching a national campaign that encourages young adults to follow the “success sequence”: education, job, marriage, children.

Will these measures make a difference? What “For Richer, for Poorer,” makes clear is that they’re worth trying. We can’t give up on marriage. We simply can’t afford to.