Trends in Family Composition

May 3, 2006

Chairman Brownback and Members of the Subcommittee:

I have been asked to testify on three issues that are related to this Subcommittee’s goal of promoting an environment conducive to marriage in the District of Columbia. These issues include a review of trends in family composition, a summary of research on the importance of marriage to children, and evidence on marriage bonuses and penalties in government programs.

Trends in Family Composition

Children do best when reared by their married parents. From this perspective, the trends in family composition in recent decades have been disastrous for children. Although most of the trends have stabilized in recent years, in previous decades marriage rates fell, divorce rates rose, and nonmarital birth rates soared. The basic building block of married-couple families, of course, is marriage rates. As shown in Chart 1, in the three decades between the 1960s and 1990s, marriage rates fell dramatically, especially for blacks. Over this period, the marriage rate for whites and blacks fell by 11 percent and 33 percent respectively. Since then, both rates have been relatively stable, although both continue to decline slowly.

Especially during the 1970s and 1980s, while marriage rates were falling, divorce rates were rising. After doubling between 1965 and 1975, the rate increased slightly until 1980 but has been stable or falling since then.

A third important trend in understanding the living arrangements of children is the nonmarital birth rate. Hollywood couples that have babies outside marriage, such as the recent case of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, get widespread attention in the media. This attention to celebrity births outside marriage has led many people to believe that “everyone is doing it.” But this conclusion is largely incorrect. Nonmarital births occur primarily among poor and minority women. In fact, children born to unmarried mothers are likely to live in poverty and to require support from the welfare system. Mothers who give birth outside marriage are also more likely to be high school dropouts, to live in poverty, and to be unemployed, all of which are correlated with poor developmental outcomes for children. Given the consequences of nonmarital births, it is alarming to review statistics showing that until recently the nonmarital birth rate has been rising relentlessly since roughly the 1950s. Chart 3 shows that the percentage of babies born outside marriage rose from under 5 percent in the 1950 to about 33 percent in 1995 before falling for the first time in decades. Since 1995, the rate has been rising again, but at a greatly reduced pace as compared with previous decades. There are enormous differences between ethnic groups in the incidence of nomarital births. In 2000, for example, the share of babies born outside marriage for whites, Hispanics, and African Americans were 22 percent, 43 percent, and 69 percent respectively. There is no doubt that the negative consequences of nonmarital births fall most heavily on minority groups. Indeed, to the extent that marriage rates could be increased, minority groups are likely to reap disproportionate advantages.