Effects of Marriage on Family Economic Well-Being. Marriage and the Economic Well-Being of Families with Children: A Review of the Literature


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 authors thank our project officer, Kelleen Kaye, and Avner Ahituv for useful comments and Carolina Krawiec for excellent research assistance and advice.


The last four decades of the twentieth century witnessed a series of changes that have been described as an "earthquake that shuddered through the American family" (Preston 1984). These changes—which include very large increases in non-marital childbearing and cohabitation, higher ages at first marriage, and higher rates of divorce and separation—have had a direct and profound impact on the well-being of American children. In 1998, only 68 percent of all children in the United States lived with both parents (Lang and Zagorsky 2000), and more than half of all children can now expect to spend at least some part of their childhood in a single-parent family. In 2000, two in five children in families headed by single women (39.7 percent) were poor compared to only 8.1 percent of children in married families (U.S. Census Bureau 2000).

These changes in family structure have caused a great deal, perhaps all, of the increases in child poverty between the early 1970s and the 1990s (Lerman 1996; Sawhill 1999). In addition, the shift toward single-parent families may have contributed to a higher incidence of other social problems, such as higher rates of school dropouts, of alcohol and drug use, of adolescent pregnancy and childbearing, and of juvenile delinquency (Lang and Zagorsky 2000; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994). Family structure has become so important to the well-being of American children that some observers now argue that marriage is replacing race, class, or neighborhood as the greatest source of division in the U.S. (Rector, Johnson, and Fagan 2001; Rauch 2001).

Recognizing the critical role of family structure, especially in low-income communities, the Congress placed the issue of marriage on the nation's legislative agenda when it passed new welfare laws in 1996 under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA, P. L. 104-193). PRWORA emphasized marriage as the foundation of a successful society and as critical to the interests of children. PRWORA aimed not only to expand work and reduce welfare dependency, but also specified explicit goals to "end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting...marriage," "prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies," and "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families."

In the six years since the passage of PRWORA, the idea of a public policy role in promoting marriage has gained strength. In the context of reauthorizing the primary welfare program (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF), the Bush Administration proposed funding for efforts to support healthy marriages through education, training, mentoring, public advertising, and reducing financial disincentives to marry. Yet, initiatives aimed at promoting healthy marriages are controversial. Some object to the initiative on philosophical grounds, arguing that the government should not involve itself in such deeply personal matters. Others question the effectiveness of spending money on marriage promotion as a way of reducing poverty. A common argument is that providing single mothers with financial supports can do more than marriage promotion to reduce child poverty. Some worry that marriage promotion might end up penalizing single-parent families or ignoring the potential dangers of additional domestic violence. Still another concern is that marriage promotion efforts will do little for minority families, partly because of the weak earnings capacities of minority men (Mincy 2001). Instead of promoting marriage, many advocate policies to help non-custodial parents contribute additional child support and become more involved in the lives of their children. Such efforts could include employment and training services for non-custodial fathers and other low-income men, reforming the public child support enforcement system to reduce work disincentives, and offering transitional employment and case management services to ex-offenders (Holzer and Offner 2002; Sorensen, Mincy, and Halpern 2000).

Without a significant change in the earnings capacities of low-income men, opponents of marriage initiatives argue that families who are at a high risk of poverty will gain few economic benefits from marriage. Indeed, marriage may actually worsen rather than ease economic hardship (Lichter, Graefe, and Brown 2001; Edin 2000).

Advocates of marriage promotion policies cite a large body of evidence pointing to the economic and social gains associated with marriage (Waite and Gallagher 2000). The social science literature has documented impressive positive associations between marriage and the earnings of men, family income, wealth, mental health, longevity, happiness, and the success of children (Institute for American Values 2002). Studies find gains from marriage, even among people with similar personal, family, and geographic characteristics. Yet, questions remain about key issues relevant to pro-marriage initiatives: Do the gains extend to the low-income population? In what ways do the gains result from marriage itself, as distinct from unmeasured differences in personal attitudes, talents, and circumstances? Is the link between marriage and positive outcomes a causal relationship and, if so, how do the causal mechanisms work?

The purpose of this paper is to bring together the empirical evidence on one aspect of the potential gains from marriage—the impact of marriage on the current economic well-being of families with children. While empirical evidence alone cannot settle public policy debates, especially on such value-laden issues as marriage promotion, evidence can inform the discussions and potentially clarify the differences between positions held by competing sides. The first step is to consider theoretically the ways in which marriage might enhance economic well-being. The second step is to clarify the empirical questions about the potential roles of marriage. Next, we turn to the empirical evidence. After presenting the observed differences in income by marital status, we examine studies of the impact of higher marriage propensities on incomes, of gains in marriage relative to cohabitation, of the stimulus to male earnings associated with marriage, and of the changes in economic well-being associated with entry into marriage, divorce, remarriage, and parenthood. We assess the findings on all groups, but focus especially on the effects of marriage on low-income, minority, and/or less educated individuals.

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