There aren\’t a whole lot of questions more touchy than whether children of married couples do better than children of unmarried couples or single parents. Indeed, a common response to this question is to evade it. See if you can spot the logical flaw in this syllogism: Proposition 1: Some marriages can be really bad. Proposition 2: Some single parents can do really well. Conclusion: There\’s no way to judge whether marriage helps children.
It\’s also true that providing persuasive evidence on the question of how marriage affects children is genuinely difficult. Just comparing children with married and unmarried parents is clearly not adequate, because married and unmarried parents are likely to differ in lots of ways–and compared with these other systematic differences, the issue of whether they are married may not be the most important factor to their parenting performance. Thus, I was delighted to see the Fall 2015 issue of The Future of Children, which offers an overview and eight essays on the theme \”Marriage and Child Well-being Revisited.\” For the impatient, here\’s the punch line from the overview by Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill (footnotes omitted):
Marriage is on the decline. Men and women of the youngest generation are either marrying in their late twenties or not marrying at all. Childbearing has also been postponed, but not as much as marriage. The result is that a growing proportion of children are born to unmarried parents—roughly 40 percent in recent years, and over 50 percent for children born to women under 30. Many unmarried parents are cohabiting when their child is born. Indeed, almost all of the increase in nonmarital childbearing during the past two decades has occurred to cohabiting rather than single mothers. But cohabiting unions are very unstable, leading us to use the term “fragile families”
to describe them. About half of couples who are cohabiting at their child’s birth will
split by the time the child is five. Many of these young parents will go on to form new
relationships and to have additional children with new partners. The consequences of
this instability for children are not good. Research increasingly shows that family
instability undermines parents’ investments in their children, affecting the children’s
cognitive and social-emotional development in ways that constrain their life chances.
How does one tackle the question of how marriage affects children in a way that opens up some insights? With no disrespect to the other essays in the volume, here are a few that especially caught my eye.
David C. Ribar asks: \”Why Marriage Matters for Child Wellbeing.\” Ribar generates a long list of ways in which marriage might help children: for example, marriage on average may be associated with greater income, assets, and wealth; greater access to borrowing credit, and health insurance; availability of time, broader social networks, economies of scale and specialization in household production and family living; different patterns of inter-family bargaining; and less family instability, complexity, dysfunction, and conflict. If this a complete list of the pathways that that cause marriage to help children, then a statistical analysis adjusting for these factors should account for all of the differences between children who grow up with married or not-married parents. Testing this hypothesis is difficult, because data on a number of these pathways is limited. Ribar also points out that a number of these factors, and especially the economic factors, are somewhat amenable to policy interventions. But Ribar\’s judgement is that these factors make a difference, but do not account for all of the difference in how marriage seems to affect children. He writes:
While interventions that raise incomes, increase parental time availability, provide alternative services, or provide other in-kind resources would surely benefit children, these are likely to be, at best, only partial substitutes for marriage itself. The advantages of marriage for children appear to be the sum of many, many parts.
Shelly Lundberg and Robert A. Pollak take a different approach in \”The Evolving Role of Marriage: 1950 –2010.\” They argue that the gains from marriage are shifting. Some decades back, marriage was about a division of household labor. Now, they argue that marriage is often about a commitment to make a joint investment in raising children, and those who have higher levels of income and education are better-positioned to be making that commitment of waiting to have children until after marriage, at a time when ready to commit to that joint project of marriage and raising children. From the summary of their article:
The primary source of gains from marriage has shifted from production of household services to investment in children. For couples whose resources allow them to invest intensively in their children, marriage provides a commitment mechanism that supports such investment. For couples who lack the resources to invest intensively in their children, on the other hand, marriage may not be worth the cost of limited independence and potential mismatch.
Gary J. Gates tackles the subject of \”Marriage and Family: LGBT Individuals and
Same-Sex Couples,\” which over time should offer some new evidence on the effects of marriage on child-bearing. From the summary:
After carefully reviewing the evidence presented by scholars on both sides of the issue, Gary Gates concludes that same-sex couples are as good at parenting as their different-sex counterparts. Any differences in the wellbeing of children raised in same-sex and different-sex families can be explained not by their parents’ gender composition but by the fact that children being by raised by same-sex couples have, on average, experienced more family instability, because most children being raised by same-sex couples were born to different-sex parents, one of whom is now in the same-sex relationship. That pattern is changing, however. … Compared to a decade ago, same-sex couples today may be less likely to have children, but those who do are more likely to have children who were born with same-sex parents who are in stable relationships. In the past, most same-sex couples raising children were in a cohabiting relationship. With same-sex couples’ right to marry now secured throughout the country, the situation is changing rapidly.
Finally, Daniel Schneider takes an interesting tack in \”Lessons Learned from Non-Marriage
Experiments.\” He looks at a range of \”social experiments\”–that is, research studies in which people were randomly assigned to one group that received some kind of program or benefit, and thus could be compared to the \”control\” group didn\’t get the program or benefit. This methodology is widely recognized as being a powerful one, and these kinds of studies have been done in lots of areas, including projects in which the randomly chosen family received support for early childhood education, human capital development, workforce training, and income support. These studies were not designed to study marriage and children, but many of the studies collected data on marriage as part of the overall research effort. From the summary:
Schneider describes each intervention in detail, discussing its target population, experimental treatment, evaluation design, economic effects, and, finally, any effects on marriage or cohabitation. Overall, he finds little evidence that manipulating men’s economic resources increased the likelihood that they would marry, though there are exceptions. For women, on the other hand, there is more evidence of positive effects.
The evidence throughout this volume is inevitably limited and contingent. But it seems to me to support an argument that marriage (on average, and of course with exceptions) seems likely to be more than the sum of a list of ingredients like income and time. Getting married sets up a day-to-day context if interactions, expectations, and responsibilities that over time will often affect how you behave in a wide variety of contexts, including how you act when comes to raising children, and of course in other ways as well.