Effects of Marriage on Family Economic Well-Being. Impacts of Marital Status and Parental Presence on the Material Hardship of Families with Children


Robert I. Lerman

This paper 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 Stephanie Riegg for excellent research assistance, Elaine Sorensen, Kelleen Kaye and Linda Mellgren for advice and comments, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for helping to fund this research. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 23rd Annual Research Conference of the Association for Public Policy and Management, Washington, DC, November 1-3, 2001.


1. Introduction

The decline in marriage is a well-known and well-documented phenomenon, with major consequences for poverty, inequality, and the use of welfare programs. The proportion of children in families headed by never-married mothers—families with the highest poverty rates and lowest incomes—jumped from less than 1 percent in the early 1970s to over 9 percent today. Researchers (e.g., Lerman, 1996; Sawhill, 1999) attribute a substantial share of the rise in poverty among children to the changing structure of families with children. Even after the decline in poverty rates during the 1990s, the poverty rate experienced by single mother families was over 35 percent, while about 6 percent of married couple families with children had incomes below the poverty line. The differential in chronic poverty is also high, with one-parent families facing a two year poverty rate 10 times higher than the rate among two-parent families (22.8 percent vs. 2.8 percent).(1) An accumulation of evidence also suggests that children growing up without two natural parents do worse on a variety of social and economic outcomes.(2)

Given these realities, it is not surprising the Congress declared promoting marriage and strengthening two-parent families as goals of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). States have so far done little to implement this goal, but the Bush Administration and members of Congress have recently sponsored legislation to fund projects to promote healthy marriages through marriage preparation services, education programs, and public awareness campaigns. These proposals for public interventions aimed at directly promoting marriage are controversial partly because of the skepticism about the ability of marriage to lessen economic hardship and improve living standards, especially among people with low education and earnings capacity.

The issue is critical for policymakers and for the public. The Congress and the President must decide on how to structure a wide array of taxes, transfers, and other public policies that provide incentives or disincentives to marriage. In doing so, they sometimes have to weigh the benefits of policies to encourage marriages against the benefits of helping families with unmarried parents. Judging the impacts of policies that discourage or shorten marriages requires information on how policies affect marriage, how marriage affects current economic hardships, and how marriage affects future outcomes of children.

Most existing studies deal with the impacts of policy on marriage and the impacts of marriage on children. Only a few studies concentrate on how marriage affects the economic status of the less educated or low-income populations, especially in comparison to a variety of other family forms, including cohabitation.(3) This study emphasizes the effects of marriage and other household arrangements on current economic well-being, with a focus on the less-educated and low-income groups. Using data from the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF), I measure the detailed family, parental, and household patterns as well as 1997-1999 changes in these patterns. Next, I examine the relationships between marriage and income-to-needs ratios as well as between marriage and material hardship. The measures of material hardship include such outcomes as cutting or missing meals because of an inability to buy food and not having enough money to pay rent, mortgage payments, or utilities.

The paper answers the following questions:

  • How do families with children differ with respect to the presence of married couples, biological, adoptive and stepparents, and other adults in one-parent families? Did the trend toward fewer intact two-parent families reverse itself between 1997 and 1999?
  • How do levels of economic hardship among children vary by marital status and household living arrangements? In particular, what are the differences between married and unmarried two-parent families and between married couple families and families in which single parents are living with other adults?
  • Do children in married couple families experience the same level of hardship as other children in families with the same level of income relative to needs?
  • To what extent is marriage associated with lower levels of hardship among children of less-educated mothers?
  • Did the marriage-hardship relationship change between 1997 and 1999?

The analysis uses both cross tabulations and simple multivariate regressions to examine these questions. This initial analysis does not involve causal modeling and thus does not yield conclusions about a causal role of marriage. Still, some of the results show important evidence of reduced material hardship associated with marriage.

Section 2 describes our initial expectations, the data, and the methods. The next section presents the complex patterns and 1997-99 trends of the household living arrangements of children and the marital status of their parents. Section 4 reports the findings from tabulations and regressions on both the relationship between poverty and household structure and between material hardship and household structure. The last section draws conclusions and discussed implications.

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


1. These data are available on the U.S. Bureau of the Census web site in the section on poverty.

2. See McLanahan and Sandefur (1994). For a caution about exaggerating the effects of single parenthood on children, see Cherlin (1999).

3. For an important recent exception, see Lichter, Graefe, and Brown (2001). They find marriage lowers poverty rates of women significantly, net of family background, education, race, age, and having a non-marital births as a teenager or later.