In the latest edition of The Future of Children, a joint project of Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, economist David Ribar takes up a question we frequently examine from various angles in this space: “Why Marriage Matters for Child Wellbeing.”
Ribar, who is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research in Australia, explains the theoretical reasons to expect parental marriage to benefit children—such as family stability, cooperative co-parenting, and economies of scale—and reviews the many concrete advantages to which marriage is linked. To name a few examples, compared to single-parent and unmarried families, married families enjoy greater household income and net wealth, better parental health, superior parenting quality, greater access to credit, and wider social networks that can serve as a private safety net. These are some of the mechanisms through which marriage fosters better child outcomes, on average, than other family arrangements, yet seemingly marriage is not reducible to this laundry list of resources.
As Future of Children editors Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill summarize Ribar’s argument:
Although many of these mechanisms [through which marriage benefits children] could be bolstered by public programs that substitute for parental resources . . . studies of child wellbeing that attempt to control for the indirect effects of these mechanisms typically find that a direct positive association remains between child wellbeing and marriage, strongly suggesting that marriage is more than the sum of these particular parts.
That implies that it will be difficult for society to provide children of unmarried parents with all the advantages associated with marriage. Financial resources and parenting classes, to name a couple popular proposals for supporting single parents, may lessen the gap in wellbeing between children of stably married parents and other children, but they are unlikely to close it entirely.
Given the centrality of this topic to the mission of the Institute for Family Studies, we asked David Ribar to tell us more about his work.
Institute for Family Studies: What spurred you to write this article? Or more generally, how did you, as an economist, come to investigate a question typically debated by sociologists?
David Ribar: Few topics are more consequential than the well-being of our children. The role of family structure in promoting child well-being has been an important but also hotly-debated question for the public, policymakers, and academics, including sociologists, economists, developmental psychologists, epidemiologists, ethnographers, and political scientists. We know that the average well-being outcomes for children raised by both of their biological parents are better than the average outcomes for children raised in other arrangements. However, we don’t know exactly why this is. My article considers many of the explanations that have been offered.
IFS: Surely it’s a bit ironic that scholars are coming to understand more and more about why marriage helps kids flourish even as fewer kids are raised by continuously married parents. As this research “trickles down” to the general public, will people make different decisions in forming families? Are you optimistic about the prospects of turning around today’s family trends?
Ribar: I firmly believe that most people take the decision to form or dissolve a family very seriously. In making those intensely personal decisions, most people also consider what’s best for them, their partners, and their children. Social science research can tell people about the average outcomes and general distributions that are associated with alternative decisions. However, the people who have to actually endure the outcomes of the decisions that they make know much more about their own circumstances than a social scientist reading results from a survey.
IFS: You note the methodological difficulties in examining the effects of marriage on children. For instance, we know there are positive associations between marriage and household income and between household income and child outcomes, but it is difficult to determine to what extent these relationships are causal. Are these difficulties ultimately insurmountable, or are there ways to overcome them? Will scholars eventually be able to come to a consensus on causality?
Ribar: While there are hold-outs, we do seem to be coming to a consensus that marriage causally contributes, on average, to children’s well-being. The tough methodological issue is that people who marry or remain married differ from people who do not. Lots of different statistical strategies have been employed to account for those differences, and most of those strategies point to average well-being advantages for children raised by both of their biological parents. The strength of that evidence led me to focus more on why marriage was beneficial than whether it was beneficial.
IFS: You write at the end of your article that “the likely advantages of children’s wellbeing are hard to replicate through policy interventions other than those that bolster marriages themselves.” Are there any marriage-supporting policy interventions that you favor or believe should be tried? What policy interventions do you think would prove most beneficial to children whose parents aren’t married?
Ribar: The article explains that there are many, many reasons why being raised by both biological parents might confer advantages—better economic resources, more time resources, greater social and institutional support, more efficient household arrangements, better cooperation, mutual support, increased family and financial stability, and so on. It’s hard to imagine a policy intervention that could substitute for marriage by reproducing all (or even most) of these advantages.
The best way to promote family stability and children’s wellbeing is to stop marginalizing people. For the past three decades, we have shifted resources, protections, and opportunities away from workers and families in the middle and lower parts of the income distribution and towards those in the highest part of the distribution. It’s no coincidence that marriage rates have declined for the people who have been marginalized but remained relatively constant for the people who have been privileged.