As 2-parent families have decreased, economic inequality has grown

Boston Globe 30 November 2014
Few political debates in this country are as freighted with emotional, cultural, and ideological baggage as those that touch on the choices people make in forming families. When public discourse turns to decisions about wedlock and child-rearing — think of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on “the breakdown of the Negro family,” or the uproar over Murphy Brown during the 1992 presidential race, or the modern push for same-sex marriage — civility is too often swept away amid a storm of hurt feelings and self-righteousness.

All the more reason, then, to welcome two recent studies — one national in scope, one focused on Massachusetts — on the effects of single parenthood and the decline in marriage. Both lay out data with clarity, while avoiding moralizing or disapproval.

One report, aptly titled “For Richer, For Poorer,” is by sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox of the American Enterprise Institute and economist Robert I. Lerman of the Urban Institute. It documents the profound links that connect family structure and financial well-being and underscores what decades of empirical data have shown: Families headed by married couples tend to be stronger economically than those headed by unwed single parents.

“Anyone concerned about family inequality, men’s declining labor-force participation, and the vitality of the American dream should worry about the nation’s retreat from marriage,” the authors write. The steady fall in the percentage of married two-parent households — from 78 percent in 1980 to 66 percent in 2012 — goes a long way toward explaining why so many ordinary families have trouble climbing beyond the lower rungs on the economic ladder. Correlation isn’t proof of causation, of course. But there is no refuting the strong association between growing up with both parents in an intact family and achieving higher levels of education, work, and income as young adults.

Wilcox and Lerman put dollar amounts to the “intact-family premium” reaped by those who are raised by their own biological or adoptive parents. By age 28 to 30, for example, men from such backgrounds are earning on average $6,500 more per year in personal income than their peers from single-parent homes. And since growing up with both parents increases one’s likelihood of marrying as an adult, men and women who were raised by married parents tend to enjoy much higher family incomes as well — in the case of that 28- to 30-year-old male, more than $16,000 higher, on average.
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