Social science suggests what common sense assumes: The support of families is good for children and adults. A new report by W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert I. Lerman, “For Richer, for Poorer,” adds to the voluminous evidence for this view. (The American Enterprise Institute, where I am a visiting fellow and Wilcox is a visiting scholar, helped to publish the paper.) Children raised in intact families earn higher wages than peers without this background, and are at reduced risk for dropping out of school or becoming single parents themselves. Married men earn more than single men, and their wives benefit from this fact.
All such research faces two lines of criticism. The first is that it does not isolate the causal role of marriage: Maybe part of the “marriage premium”—all of it?—reflects greater economic promise in the population of people who get married. The second is that it is pointless because nothing can be done to increase marriage rates or marital stability.
Wilcox and Lerman handle these issues as well as the subject allows. They correct for what they can, and even if their results overstate the effects of marriage, those effects are still likely to be large. Their policy recommendations are appropriately modest. They are geared toward helping people who are making choices that are good for them, their children, and society, rather than pressuring them to make those choices.
They suggest ending marriage penalties in government benefit programs, which would both help low-income married couples and end a disincentive for low-income couples to marry. They would make the child credit more generous, which would disproportionately benefit married couples. They would increase the earned income credit for single, childless adults, which would make work more rewarding than public assistance and, presumably, make beneficiaries more marriageable. For similar reasons, they would make apprenticeship and vocational-education programs available to more young people. And they would launch a public-private partnership to publicize the “success sequence,” informing people that they are best off finishing high school, getting jobs, getting married, and having kids in that order.
These ideas are well worth pursuing. (Several of them can be defended on libertarian grounds apart from any effect on promoting marriage or social welfare.) Indeed, Wilcox and Lerman seem to me to have undersold them a bit. It is possible to have a fairly robust pro-family policy agenda while remaining both respectful of liberty and mindful of the limits of public policy to change mores.
The authors’ interest in creating more alternatives for kids who are (for one reason or another) not suited for a four-year college is welcome. But it is a line of thinking that should be followed further. Higher education has too often become a high-priced bottleneck to opportunity rather than a facilitator of it, and policymakers should attempt to change that in many different ways. Apprenticeship programs and vocational education should be part of that effort. So should steps to encourage online learning, to liberalize the accreditation process and thereby bring more competition to the market, to allow creative means of financing college—and doubtless many other ideas besides.
This effort would not only expand opportunity for young people who are not on the college track under today’s policies. They would also ease the financial stress that planning for their futures creates for their parents.
State and local governments should also take a look at the way their housing regulations impose serious burdens on young low-income people who want to start or enlarge their families. In many parts of the country, the cost of housing has become prohibitive, and starting a family practically means having to move out of the region. To the extent that government has made that problem worse, it ought to stop.
And while discouraging drug abuse has often (and rightly) been seen as part of a pro-family agenda, in today’s circumstances a case can also be made for scaling back the punishment of low-level drug offenders. Few things kill marriageability like incarceration.
Taken together, these won’t bring marriage rates up to where they used to be, not least because they won’t lower the average age of first marriage to where it used to be. They could, however, make a difference on the margin, so that the proportion of the next generation raised in a two-parent household is a little higher than it would otherwise be. And the report makes a strong case that on this front, our society could use all the help it can get.