Strengthening families, not just marriages

In their recent blog for Social Mobility Memos, Brad Wilcox, Robert Lerman, and Joseph Price make a convincing case that a stable family structure is an important factor in increased social mobility, higher economic growth, and less poverty over time.

Why is marriage so closely tied to family income?

The interesting question is: what lies behind this relationship? Why is a rise (or a smaller decline) in the proportion of married families associated, for example, with higher growth in average family incomes or a decline in poverty? The authors suggest a number of reasons, including the positive effects of marriage for children, less crime, men’s engagement in work, and income pooling. Of these, however, income pooling is by far the most important. Individual earnings have increased very little, if at all, over the past three or four decades, so the only way for families to get ahead was to add a second earner to the household. This is only possible within marriage or some other type of income pooling arrangement like cohabitation. Marriage here is the means: income pooling is the end.

Is marriage the best route to income pooling?

How do we encourage more people to share incomes and expenses? There are no easy answers. Wilcox and his co-authors favor reducing marriage penalties in tax and benefit programs, expanding training and apprenticeship programs, limiting divorces in cases where reconciliation is still possible, and civic efforts to convince young people to follow what I and others have called the “success sequence.” All of these ideas are fine in principle. The question is how much difference they can make in practice. Previous efforts have had at best modest results, as a number of articles in the recent issue of the Brookings-Princeton journal The Future of Children point out.      

Start the success sequence with a planned pregnancy

Our success sequence, which Wilcox wants to use as the basis for a pro-marriage civic campaign, requires teens and young adults to complete their education, get established in a job, and to delay childbearing until after they are married. The message is the right one.

The problem is that many young adults are having children before marriage. Why? Early marriage is not compatible, in their view, with the need for extended education and training. They also want to spend longer finding the best life partner. These are good reasons to delay marriage. But pregnancies and births still occur, with or without marriage. For better or worse, our culture now tolerates, and often glamorizes, multiple relationships, including premarital sex and unwed parenting. This makes bringing back the success sequence difficult.

Our best bet is to help teens and young adults avoid having a child until they have completed their education, found a steady job, and most importantly, a stable partner with whom they want to raise children, and with whom they can pool their income. In many cases this means marriage; but not in all. The bottom line: teens and young adults need more access and better education and counselling on birth control, especially little-used but highly effective forms as the IUD and the implant. Contraception, not marriage, is where we should be focusing our attention.