Columnist

This year, I’m celebrating 23 years of marriage.

In addition to the joy of being wed to my best friend, our relationship has economically lifted my life and that of my nuclear and extended family. Being married has netted results that neither of us could have dreamed of coming from low-income households.

And so I readily embrace the findings of a new report that makes the case that the retreat from marriage — especially among lower-income Americans, and the resulting change in family structures — is a major factor contributing to the economic inequality in the United States.

It may seem old-fashioned, but marriage matters.

Researchers W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert I. Lerman have collaborated on a study that I hope will spur lots of conversation and programs to strengthen and encourage marriage. The report isn’t about criticizing the life choices people make. There is no judgment in the findings. Rather, their research shows that stable, two-parent families decrease the chance of people ending up impoverished.

It’s time we understood the importance of marriage in upward economic trends. (handout via AP)

“Changes in family formation and stability are central to the changing economic landscape of American families, to the declining economic status of men, and to worries about the health of the American dream,” Wilcox and Lerman write.

Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and directs the school’s National Marriage Project. Lerman is the Urban Institute’s fellow in labor and social policy and a professor of economics at American University.

In “For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America,” Wilcox and Lerman break down their research into five areas. Yet I want to concentrate on one overarching finding — that lower marriage trends have shifted the economic fortunes of many families.

The median income of families with children would have been 44 percent higher in 2012 had we had the same level of married parenthood as we did in the 1980s, the report says.

“The data strongly suggest that had marriage rates not declined substantially among parents, many more families would have attained middle-class incomes, and the inequality across families would have increased at a slower rate,” Wilcox and Lerman write.

I was also concerned by their findings that the widening economic gap is exacerbated by the fact that adults with less education and fewer financial assets are choosing not to marry while well-educated, high-earning adults are lifting their economic situation by tying the knot. “Thus, higher-income Americans are enjoying larger economic returns from marriage than they used to,” the researchers write.

They argue that there is a marriage premium we can’t ignore.

If you’re married and were raised in a two-parent household, the annual premium in household income is more than $42,000.

By no means are Wilcox and Lerman suggesting that people should see marriage as primarily a financial decision. Love should have something to do with it, too.

In a panel discussion on their report, Wilcox and Lerman also noted that we can’t shy away from looking at the impact on children when couples do not get married. Being raised without both parents present in one household is important because it affects kids’ economic well-being, too.

One caution. As we talk more about the benefits of marriage, we need to show compassion in policies and programs for people who make choices that may very well result in more struggles for them and their children. Among their recommendations, Wilcox and Lerman urge expanding and improving vocational education programs to provide job opportunities for less-educated adults.

To reverse the retreat in marriage, Lerman and Wilcox call for a number of policies such as increasing the child tax credit and earned income tax credit. They also recommend a “success sequence” national campaign largely led by civic, religious, community and business organizations. The term is courtesy of Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution.

This campaign, much like those to prevent teen and unplanned pregnancies, would stress a sequence of choices — an education, a job, marriage, children, in that order — to help establish a better economic foundation. It was the sequence my husband and I followed.

We spend a lot of time telling young adults to get a good education so that they can get a good job. The other part of that economic equation is trumpeting the benefits of a stable marriage.

“In today’s polarized world, this will be a challenge, but it is one that ought to be surmounted on behalf of the next generation,” Wilcox and Lerman write.

None of this is meant to be judgmental toward anyone. But it’s vital that we step up efforts to reduce the marriage divide that is eroding the American dream and creating divergent destinies for far too many families.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or michelle.singletary@washpost.com. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.