Effects of Marriage on Family Economic Well-Being. How Do Marriage, Cohabitation, and Single Parenthood Affect the Material Hardships of Families with Children?


Robert I. Lerman

This report was prepared for the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation under HHS Grant Number 00ASPE359A. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. The author thanks Kelleen Kaye for useful comments and Stephanie Riegg and Carolina Krawiec for excellent research assistance and advice.

1. Introduction

The decline in marriage and associated two-parent families in the United States continues to complicate efforts to reduce child poverty. Although the 30-year trend away from two-parent families has slowed in recent years, the share of children living outside married couple families remains high. About one in three children live in one-parent families and nearly 40 percent live away from at least one biological parent. The negative impact on poverty and inequality is well documented. Recent estimates suggest that were marriage rates at levels of the early 1970s, the 1998 US child poverty rate would have been 3.5 percentage points lower (Thomas and Sawhill 2001), as would income inequality among children (Lerman 1996). Waite and Gallagher (2000) report a number of other positive economic and social effects of marriage.

Yet, questions have been raised about whether the economic benefits of marriage extend to low-income, less educated women. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, reportedly argued, "To say that the path to economic stability for poor women is marriage is an outrage." (Toner 2002). The worry is that the prospective spouses of low-income women and men are themselves too poor or too limited in their earnings capacities to contribute significantly to the family's resources (see Edin 2000). While the lack of a second earner complicates the economic problems of less educated mothers, another adult with zero or low earnings would hardly be a solution. On the other hand, a second earner or caregiver need only provide about $2,000-$3,700 in earnings in order to offset the increase in family needs required by an additional person.(1)

The focus of much of the discussion about the economic benefits of marriage is on the distinction between married couple families and single parent families. Yet, as some authors emphasized decades ago (e.g., Stack and Simmel, 1974), low-income single parents are often able to draw on other family members for support, either formally or informally. The presence of other adults could, in principle, limit the advantages of marriage associated with economies of scale in household production, with the division of labor and risk sharing among adults (Lerman 2002). If so, the economic benefits from marriage could be modest or zero relative to such family forms as cohabitation or single parenthood with other adults present in the household.

A second issue arising in estimating the gains from marriage among adults with low earnings capacities is that income, even income relative to needs, may be a weak measure of economic well being. Current income relative to needs does not take account of permanent income, income variability, wealth accumulation, or the ability to draw on resources of relatives and friends. Broader measures of economic well being may be of special importance to low-income families trying to avoid material hardships. As Mayer and Jencks (1989) demonstrated, income poverty offers only part of the explanation for the experience of material hardships. Some families may manage their budgets better than others. Measured income may understate actual income and the ability to consume, particularly for low-income families. While some poor families are experiencing material hardships, other equally poor families are able to avoid these problems by drawing on assets or on help from friends.

Marriage might well offer families a better chance for asset building and transfers from friends and family. Hao (1996) points to the less extensive networks available to mothers with cohabiting partners and to single parents who receive little from the kin of non-custodial fathers. Hao finds that while single parents and cohabiting couples are less likely to receive transfers from the kin of the absent biological parent, they are more likely to obtain transfers from friends. Apparently, the higher transfers to married couples encourage wealth accumulation and add to the wealth advantage married couples have over cohabiting couples and single parents.

In a recent paper (Lerman 2001), I examined the economic role of marriage, while taking account of the complexity of household forms and using direct measures of hardship as well as income and poverty measures. The analysis used information on family and household relationships and on material hardship from the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF). Results based on tabulations and multivariate analyses showed that even among the poor, material hardships were substantially lower among married couple families with children than among other families with children, including those with at least two potential earners. Moreover, the size of the marriage impacts was quite large, generally higher than the effects of education. The impacts were particularly high among non-Hispanic black families. Reductions in material hardship associated with marriage emerged not only relative to one-parent families with no adult present, but also relative to cohabiting parents and to one-parent families with other adults present.

This paper extends the analysis in two ways. First, the paper replicates and widens the review of hardship and household status, using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). Topical module 8 in the 1996 SIPP panel includes a more extensive set of questions about material hardships than were included in the NSAF. In addition, SIPP questions deal with the availability of help from friends and relatives. Second, the paper examines the question of whether the reduced hardship experienced by married families, including poor married couple families, is simply the result of higher levels of income and lower levels of income variability in the past two years. The SIPP analysis also takes account of the role of household stability in determining material hardships.

The next sections describe the data and methodology. Section four presents descriptive information about the sample and basic tabulations linking specific material hardships to household status. The fifth section presents the multivariate results, capturing the effects of the household status, conditional on the current income-to-needs ratio, the prior level and variability of income-to-needs ratios, and the extent of household instability. I summarize the findings in section six.


1. The increase in the poverty threshold associated with adding another adult depends on the initial family size and number of children. See http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/threshld/thresh01.html.

[The entire paper is available in Portable Document Format (PDF).]