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Iain Murray
Getting Hitched
Social-services advocates pooh-pooh the idea of promoting marriage among the poor. New research demolishes their arguments.
30 May 2003

Social-services advocates usually make two arguments against the idea of promoting marriage among poor single-parent families. First, they charge, poor urban communities, where such families disproportionately reside, suffer from a chronic shortage of “marriageable” males—the men are usually young, feckless, and hostile to the idea of marriage. Even those who are potential “husband” material in such communities are chronically unemployed, making so little money that they wouldn’t raise the economic status of the mothers of their children even if they were to marry them. Second, the advocates say, marriages entered into because of a pregnancy or birth are likely to be much less stable than typical marriages. Given these realities, the advocates conclude, marriage promotion among the poor would be futile.

The first two arguments are pure bunk, as a new study from Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation makes clear. The study, based on data from the “Fragile Families” database maintained by Princeton and Columbia researchers, estimates the economic and social situations of 225,000 children, extrapolating from interviews with 4,700 families—most of them headed by unwed parents. The study finds that more than 70 percent of the unmarried parents maintain a stable romantic relationship at the time of their child’s birth (just under 50 percent are cohabiting). What’s more, a full 82 percent of the fathers are employed at the time of their child’s birth, and two-thirds of the dads have graduated high school. On average, the men are 25 years old and have worked for 50 weeks in the year before the birth of their baby. Only 2 percent are in any way violent, and just 12 percent have problems with drugs or alcohol.

Hardly the picture the advocates present of fathers of children born outside marriage! Most of these new dads aren’t so young after all, and they’re mature enough to graduate high school, hold down a job, maintain a stable relationship, and avoid substance abuse and violent crime. Presumably, they’re mature enough to get married too.

These fathers would bring considerable extra income to their families if they did get hitched to their child’s mother. The study examined three scenarios, based on the employment status of the mother. In all three—whether the mother was unemployed, worked part-time, or worked full-time—marrying her child’s father boosted her annual family income by around $11,000. This income bump lifts the majority of poor children with single moms out of poverty. For unemployed single-mother-headed families, for example, marriage pushes 65 percent of the children above the poverty line (from all the kids being below it prior to marriage); nearly a third of the children in this family category rises 50 percent above the poverty line. Mothers employed part-time and full-time who wed see even bigger gains for their kids.

The Heritage study comes on the heels of a study from last year that sinks the advocates’ second argument. The Urban Institute found that 70 percent of marriages entered into because of a child’s birth or impending birth still endured 12 years later—not much worse than the figure for more traditional marriages where the ceremony occurred before pregnancy (85 percent). “Shotgun” marriages are less fragile than many believe.

If the advocates need further convincing that they should abandon their hostility to the promotion of marriage, new research from the National Institutes of Mental Health and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Child Development, has uncovered new evidence of how marriage protects kids. Looking at the impact of father absence on the behavior of teenage girls, the study found that the earlier a father was absent from his daughter’s life the more likely she was to engage in risky behavior, particularly early sexual activity—increasing the risk of teen pregnancy. The researchers’ conclusion: “these findings may support social policies that encourage fathers to form and remain in families with their children.”

As so many earlier generations realized, marriage is a good thing—for parents, children, and society. It’s time for the advocates to wake up.

Iain Murray is a Visiting Fellow of the UK think tank Civitas, the Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

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More by Iain Murray:
The Regulatory Thicket
More . . .
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