It isn’t clear why children who live with their unmarried biological parents don’t do as well as kids who live with married ones. Adults who marry may be different from those who cohabit, divorce or become unwed mothers. Although studies try to adjust for these differences, researchers can’t measure all of them. People in stable marriages may have better relationship skills, for instance, or a greater philosophical or religious commitment to union that improves parenting. Still, raising children is a daunting responsibility. Two committed parents typically have more time and resources to do it well.
Third, marriage brings economic benefits. It usually means two breadwinners, or one breadwinner and a full-time, stay-at-home parent with no significant child-care expenses. Unlike Murphy Brown — who always had the able Eldin by her side — most women do not have the flexibility afforded a presumably highly paid broadcast journalist. And it’s not just a cliche that two can live more cheaply than one; a single set of bills for rent, utilities and other household expenses makes a difference. Though not necessarily better off than a cohabiting couple, a married family is much better off than its single-parent counterpart.
I’ve been studying single mothers since long before “Murphy Brown” was on the air. In a study I co-authored with Adam Thomas, I put them into hypothetical households with demographically similar unmarried men who, in principle, would be good marriage partners. Through this virtual matchmaking, we showed that child poverty rates would fall by as much as 20 percent in an America with more two-parent households.
In later research, Ron Haskins and I learned that if individuals do just three things — finish high school, work full time and marry before they have children — their chances of being poor drop from 15 percent to 2 percent. Mitt Romney has cited this research on the campaign trail, but these issues transcend presidential politics. Stronger public support for single-parent families — such as subsidies or tax credits for child care, and the earned-income tax credit — is needed, but no government program is likely to reduce child poverty as much as bringing back marriage as the preferable way of raising children.
The government has a limited role to play. It can support local programs and nonprofit organizations working to reduce early, unwed childbearing through teen-pregnancy prevention efforts, family planning, greater opportunities for disadvantaged youth or programs to encourage responsible relationships.
But in the end, Dan Quayle was right. Unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, the new trend — bringing up baby alone — may be irreversible.
Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, where she co-directs the Center on Children and Families. She is a co-author, with Ron Haskins, of “Creating an Opportunity Society.”
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