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2-Parent Families and Poverty

10/30/2005 - 5:00 AM PST

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Studies Reveal Social Advantages of Marriage

WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 30, 2005 (Zenit) - The social impact of marriage is at the center of debates in many countries. Same-sex marriage, divorce, unmarried mothers and other issues divide public opinion. The journal The Future of Children dedicated its summer issue to the theme "Marriage and Child Well-being" and sheds light on the problems.

In its introduction to the issue, the journal, published by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, noted that roughly half of all U.S. children born today are expected to live apart from a parent before they reach age 18. The numbers are even higher among African-American children.

The decline in two-parent families has been closely linked with a rise in child poverty, the journal said. Moreover, the changes in marriage and the family "appear to be depriving children of such documented benefits of marriage as better physical and emotional health and greater socioeconomic attainment."

The link between families and income is examined in the article "For Love and Money? The Impact of Family Structure on Family Income," by Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill. The authors are, respectively, a Ph.D. candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University, and the director of the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution.

They conclude that increases in single parenthood have reduced children's economic well-being. Moreover, children in cohabiting households, although they tend to fare better economically than those in lone-parent households, are worse off than those in married-parent households.

Wage premium

Although some single parents, 38% in 2001, receive economic support from the absent parent, this is far below the amount of money a married spouse would bring home to the family.

The article also noted the phenomenon of the "wage premium" for married men. One study found that, after controlling for such characteristics as work experience and education, married men's weekly wages are between 16% and 35% higher than those of separated, divorced and never-married men.

A part of this difference might be explainable because men with greater earning power are more attractive marriage partners. But other studies indicated that, at most, only half of the difference is due to this factor. A review of many studies leads to the conclusion that marriage directly raises the wages of men between 5% and 10%.

Thomas and Sawhill also found that a large body of evidence demonstrates that children born to unmarried mothers are more likely to be poor than are other youngsters. This holds true even after controlling for race, family background, age, education and employment status.

Studies have assessed the extent to which the decline in marriage and the spread of single parenthood over time have contributed to the growth of child poverty. With some exceptions, these studies generally find that most, and in some cases all, of the increase in child poverty over the past 30 to 40 years can be explained by changes in family structure.

Tax penalty

The economic advantages of marriage could be even greater if it were not for a fiscal system that in many cases penalizes married couples. This point is made by Adam Carasso, a research associate at the Urban Institute, and C. Eugene Steuerle, a co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

In their article, "The Hefty Penalty on Marriage Facing Many Households with Children," they noted that when a single parent earning the minimum wage marries another worker at minimum wage, they lose several thousand dollars of food stamp benefits. This "marriage penalty" operates in different ways, including losing medical benefits, or being pushed into higher income tax brackets.

Carasso and Steuerle conclude that most households with children who have an income under $40,000 are significantly penalized for getting married. Consequently, "cohabitating has become the tax shelter of the poor." Reforming this situation will not be easy, they added, due to the multitude of laws governing welfare benefits and taxes. In recent years Congress has made some changes to reduce the marriage penalty, but much remains to be done.

Paul Amato, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, looks at some social aspects related to marriage. In his article, "The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation," he looked at the impact of divorce on children.

Well-being of children

Debate over the differing results of studies in this area abounds, he noted. But a recent meta-analysis done by Amato, based on 67 studies conducted during the 1990s, found ...

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