Mobility and money in U.S. states: The marriage effect

Marriage and family structure influence the economic and social well-being of children. As Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill note in the most recent issue of Princeton and Brookings’ Future of Children,“most scholars now agree that children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms across a wide range of outcomes.”

Recent research also suggests marriage and family structure matter not just for individual children, but also for the economic and social well-being of entire communities. When it comes to economic mobility, for instance, we know from the work of Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren that “[low]-income children are most likely to succeed in counties” that have “a larger share of two-parent families.”

States, marriages, and mobility

In a new report, Strong Families, Prosperous States: Do Healthy Families Affect the Wealth of States?, we examine state-level associations between family structure and economic mobility, child poverty, median family income, and economic growth.

Do states with more families headed by married parents enjoy greater prosperity and give poor children a better shot at the American Dream? The short answer: “yes.” We find, for example, that states with more married-parent families (e.g., Idaho, Minnesota, Utah, and Washington) have higher per capita GDP, upward income mobility, lower rates of child poverty and higher family incomes than those with fewer married couples (e.g., Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina).

Do states with more families headed by married parents enjoy greater prosperity and give poor children a better shot at the American Dream? The short answer: “yes.”

Of course, these are just snapshots: what about the trend? We find in addition that there is a connection over time between married parenthood and mobility for poor children. Children raised at the 25th income percentile from states with comparatively more married families typically come close to the 50th percentile in their family income as adults. Children raised at the 25th income percentile in states with low levels of married parenthood are much less likely to move up the income ladder as adults:

Chart - Highest and lowest mobility states for adults raised at the 25th income percentile

We find that a state’s share of married parenthood is one of the best predictors of upward mobility for lower-income children; better, in fact, than the state’s racial composition or the college-educated share of its adult population.

States, marriages, and money

Similar patterns can be seen for median family income. States that saw relatively small declines in the share of parents who are married, such as Utah and Washington, enjoyed markedly higher levels of growth in their median family income (in constant 2013 dollars) than states that exhibited marked declines in married parenthood, such as Kentucky and Louisiana:

Chart 2 - changes in median family income by changes in family structure

Yes, but what about causality?

There are clearly some strong links here. But which is the cause, and which the effect? Economist Elisabeth Jacobs noted in response to our report that, “Economic insecurity and wage stagnation for the bottom 90 percent of Americans are undoubtedly contributing to family instability.” (Editor’s note: Jacobs will be responding to this post, too, as will Isabel Sawhill.)  We certainly agree that strong and stable families may be a sign of favorable economic conditions rather than vice versa. But we believe the causal arrow points both ways. While we do not estimate a dynamic, interactive model, our analysis controls for key determinants of economic growth other than marital status, including initial characteristics of each state.

Marriage is also strong in some states with only middling levels of education or income, such as Idaho and Nebraska, and Wilcox’s related research on counties finds that political conservatism is a significant predictor of marriage levels at the county level (see below), even controlling for factors such as race and education:

Chart 3 - percentage of population married

The regional link between cultural conservatism and marriage—which is particularly strong at the county level—suggests that we need to acknowledge “the importance of local cultures that celebrate marriage as an important part of most stable, prosperous families,” in the words of the New York Times’ Upshot editor David Leonhardt.

Renewing Strong Families

So, marriage matters. What, then, can be done to strengthen the institution of marriage, particularly in working-class and poor communities where it is weakest? To be clear, we do not think the federal government can do much to promote marriage directly. But governments at both federal and state levels can take three steps that could strengthen the policy, educational, and economic foundations of marriage in lower-income communities:

  1. End the marriage penalty in means-tested welfare programs. Too many low-income couples with children face substantial penalties for marrying. Many social benefits (food stamps, housing assistance, and welfare payments) decline as income rises. This means a single or cohabiting mother receives more benefits if she remains unmarried than if she marries a partner earning a steady wage.
  2. Expand apprenticeships and strengthen career and technical education. One reason marriage is fragile in many poor and working-class communities is that job prospects are inadequate, especially for young adults without college degrees. This economic reality can be remedied, in part, by scaling up vocational education and apprenticeship programs. By raising the skills, earnings, maturity, and self-confidence of young men and women who are not on the college track, such programs help more young people forge strong and stable marriages. To that end, we endorse the tax credits for apprenticeship proposed in the LEAP Act cosponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), as well as efforts to increase work-based learning programs in high schools like Career Academies.
  3. Help couples give their marriage a second chance. In around one-third of couples exploring divorce, one or both spouses express interest in the possibility of reconciliation. We endorse the three-step plan proposed by William J. Doherty of the University of Minnesota and Leah Ward Sears, a retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice: extend the divorce waiting period to one year (except in cases of abandonment or physical/substance abuse); provide high-quality education about reconciliation for couples who wish to learn more; and create university-based centers of excellence to improve the education available to couples at risk of divorce.
  4. Launch civic efforts to strengthen marriage. Public policy can only do so much. If we seek to strengthen marriage, we must also look beyond Washington and our state capitols. This is why we also support a civic campaign organized around what Brookings scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have called the “success sequence,” with young adults encouraged to pursue education, work, marriage, and parenthood—in that order. Civic and cultural campaigns against smoking and teenage pregnancy have taught us that sustained efforts to change behavior can work. A campaign organized around the success sequence—and receiving widespread support from a range of educational, media, pop cultural, business, and civic institutions—might meet with the same level of success as the nation’s recent campaign to prevent teen pregnancy, which has helped drive down the teen pregnancy rate by more than 50 percent since the 1990s.

These four ideas are indicative of the kind of multi-pronged public and private efforts needed to strengthen marriage and family life in America. There is no magic bullet when it comes to renewing families. Some will doubt the justice of such a project. Others will doubt its feasibility. But as we demonstrate, some states have achieved a measure of success in resisting the nation’s retreat from marriage.

If more states could get behind public policies to curb marriage penalties, strengthen educational efforts to boost the earning power of young adults, reform family law to reduce the prevalence of divorce, and launch civic efforts to make the culture more marriage-friendly, we just might see a renaissance in marriage and family life in America. And that would bring about improvement in not only the state of our unions, but also the wealth of our states.