WASHINGTON, D.C., September 5, 2002Marriage, even a shotgun wedding, significantly improves the living standards of mothers and their children, according to three new studies by Robert I. Lerman, director of the Labor and Social Policy Center at the nonpartisan Urban Institute. Families with two married parents encounter more stable home environments, fewer years in poverty, and diminished material hardship.
"The findings strengthen the case for policies that support marriage or at least avoid discouraging marriage," says Lerman. "At the same time, the studies do not provide evidence as to whether government programs aimed at promoting healthy marriages will, in fact, increase the number of such marriages and whether the induced marriages will achieve the economic benefits generated by existing marriages."
Stability of the Home Environment
Women who were married by the first year of their first child's life tended to stay married, while those who began motherhood as single moms spent most of their child's early years alone, according to data Lerman gleaned from the U.S. Department of Labor's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The survey, covering 1979 to 1998, offers a profile of women who reached their mid- to late-30s in the late 1990s.
The mothers who were married early in their children's lives spent an average of just under 7 of the following 8 years married and only about 9 months as single parents living alone. The group that started out as single mothers spent 5 of the next 10 years alone and 2 and one-half years married. (Being a single mother cohabiting with the second parent or a single parent living with another adult in the household accounts for the remaining time.)
Marriage and Poverty
Thirty-three percent of the women who had a premarital pregnancy leading to a birth were poor for 4 or more years over a 12-year period. However, those who had shotgun weddings (that is, whose marriages took place after pregnancy but before childbirth) experienced a 20 percent chronic poverty rate, less than half the 47 percent rate of those who did not marry.
Looking at 1998 data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation, a nationally representative panel survey that follows household members for up to 48 months, Lerman found that poverty rates for cohabiting, unmarried parents were double those for married parents; single parents with at least a second adult in the home had poverty rates triple those for married parents. Having a second adult in the household to share work and child care reduced poverty among unmarried mothers, but not as much as marriage.
Marriage and Material Hardship
Given their lower poverty rates, married couples with children were much less likely than cohabiting parents or single-parent households to suffer material hardship, such as insufficient food, poor housing, or lack of utility services. The share of households unable to meet their basic expenses ranged from 30 to 36 percent for cohabiting and single parents to about 15 percent for married couples.
"One reason married couples might experience a lower than average incidence of material hardship and poverty is that people with higher income-generating capacity may be more likely to marry," Lerman surmises. However, even married parents with low incomes face less material hardship than other low-income families. The greater access of married parents to help from family and friends contributes to their advantage in limiting material hardship.
Analysis of the Urban Institute's 1997 and 1999 National Survey of America's Families confirms that being in a married two-parent household protects against material hardship, even when accounting for families with the same income-to-needs ratio, immigration status, race, education, and ages of children and adults. Less than 4 percent of married two-parent households could not afford their rent and experienced food shortages. The rates were 2 to 3 times higher for cohabiting and single parents. The effects of marriage emerged as most consistently significant for the near-poor (those with incomes 1 to 2 times the federal poverty level) and for black households below 150 percent of the poverty line.
The analyses of material hardship, Lerman cautions, do not yield conclusions about a causal role for marriage, but they do show strong associations between marriage and reduced hardship. The research is important because, over the last four decades, the declining proportion of married adults and the rise in single parenthood have contributed to a significant falloff in the economic status of families with children. Despite healthy growth in per capita income in recent years, child poverty levels have remained at their 1970s levels.
"Married and Unmarried Parenthood and Economic Well-Being: A Dynamic Analysis of a Recent Cohort," "How Do Marriage, Cohabitation, and Single Parenthood Affect the Material Hardships of Families with Children?," and "Impacts of Marital Status and Parental Presence on the Material Hardship of Families with Children" can all be found on the Urban Institute Web site or from the Urban Institute Publications Sales Office at 202-261-5687 or toll-free at 1-877-UIPRESS.
These studies, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, are part of ongoing Urban Institute research on the economic well-being of America's children and families.
The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and education organization that examines the social, economic, and governance problems facing the nation.