America is deeply engaged in a debate about marriage.
But it’s not the most urgent dialogue worth having about an institution that has served to order society for millennia.
What the current discussion about expanding matrimony obscures is the bigger picture about traditional marriage, namely, that it’s in decline — and that this decline has dramatic and devastating consequences for society, children in particular.
The connection between marriage and improved economic outcomes is not novel.
In 1965, as President Lyndon B. Johnson was declaring “war on poverty,” a highly controversial report by Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified the deterioration of the family in the African-American community as one of several major catalysts for growing economic and social inequality.
At the time, more than half of all black women and about two-thirds of Hispanic and Anglo women were married; and just over 20 percent of black infants and between 2 and 3 percent of Anglo infants were born to single mothers.
Half a century later, those numbers have not declined — they have exploded.
According to government statistics, 40.7 percent of all 2012 births were out of wedlock, including 72.2 percent in the African-American community; 53.5 percent of Hispanic children; and 29.4 percent of Anglo children.
Revisiting the Moynihan report last year, the Urban Institute found that “the social trends that concerned Moynihan have worsened for blacks and nonblacks alike,” suggesting that the “factors driving the decline [of marriage] do not lie solely within the black community but in the larger social and economic context.”
The numbers themselves are alarming and they raise serious questions about why marriage is disintegrating.
But it is the bounty of research correlating family structure to the economic mobility of children — or lack thereof — that makes concerns about the declining marriage culture a public policy crisis.
A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project looked at the impact of single parenthood on a child’s economic opportunities. It found that both “children of divorced mothers or [those] who were born to unmarried mothers are less likely to be upwardly mobile in relative terms than are children of continuously married mothers.”
It seems obvious that two-parent households advantage children, as they tend to have greater resources both financial and social (time, energy, attention) that make kids more likely to graduate and get well-paying jobs and less likely to be incarcerated or become single parents.
But the impact of family structure has ripple effects that extend well beyond individual households, according to new comprehensive data by Harvard economist Raj Chetty. Chetty and his co-authors found that “family structure correlates with upward mobility not just at the individual level but also at the community level, perhaps because the stability of the social environment affects children’s outcomes more broadly.”
The Brookings Institution warns that marriage has become “a mechanism through which advantage is protected and passed on,” as wealthier, committed parents tend to get and stay married and raise their children together, while less affluent women are more likely to have children outside of marriage and raise them on their own, often in communities of similar structure, where they enter vicious cycles of downward mobility for themselves and their progeny.
Marriage is not a silver bullet. Encouraging more single mothers to wed the fathers of their children will not magically reduce poverty. Nor is the decimated marriage culture the only factor limiting economic mobility, which is also affected by racial and economic segregation, school quality and low levels of social capital.
But attempts to redistribute income and expand the welfare state, including those called for in Moynihan’s report 50 years ago, have not had the success that lawmakers expected.
As Ron Haskins, director of Brookings’ Center on Children and Families, told The Washington Post, “We are not going to have an effective solution to the growing inequality and poverty in the U.S. unless we can do something about family structure.”
In the war on inequality, supporting policies that promote more stable family environments may not be a bad place to start.