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  • It is shocking that Maryland elites try to tackle so many problems—poverty, crime, educational deficiencies, drugs—without addressing the role of family structure. Tweet This
  • High levels of family breakdown, and the associated problems, are not only the province of urban centers; many of Maryland's rural counties, too often ignored, struggle, too. Tweet This
  • Even in rich counties like Montgomery, families headed by married couples have incomes over three times higher than those headed by single mothers. Tweet This
Category: Public Policy

There is an increasingly popular narrative spun around the powerful associations between stable marriages—or the lack-thereof—and a host of important social outcomes such as income and poverty, crime, mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, academic success, and so on. It is that these dismal correlations can be lessened or even nullified by wealth plus progressive policies—including income redistribution—to ameliorate those problems that have long been associated with such phenomena as divorce, separation, single parenting, marital avoidance, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Certainly, this narrative means there is nothing to that inconvenient third part of the famous “success sequence”—get married before having children if you do not want to be poor—that good will and thoughtful public policy cannot overcome.

This narrative would suggest that in a state like Maryland, those associations between marriage and family structure are pretty weak, or at the very least, they are weak in the wealthiest and most politically liberal counties. Maryland is a deeply blue state which, as of 2023, had the highest median household income, the lowest poverty rate, and the fourth highest percentage of citizens with a bachelor’s degree in the United States. It is so accepting of single parenting that it recently mandated that health insurance cover fertility treatments for single women. In addition to that, Maryland is home to many employees of the federal government, not to mention federal contractors, a lot of them experts on public policy. 

And yet, according to a new, major research report, all of the associations between marriage and family structure and key social outcomes that we have come to expect from hundreds of social scientific studies are robust in the Free State. And, just as everywhere else, the success sequence still matters here.

On November 3, The State of the Maryland Family was released by the Maryland Family Institute (MFI), a newly-formed family policy council supported by many leading Maryland citizens. Rooted in a variety of social science data sets, the report opens with summaries of the health of marriage and family (cohabitation, out of wedlock births, etc.) for each county, plus the independent city of Baltimore. It then examines various social pathologies—income and poverty, crime and violence, mental health, youthful sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, and educational outcomes—as correlated with family formation. The report closes with recommendations for public policy to strengthen families and marriage. 

Ultimately, the report finds that stable marriage, or its absence, is staggeringly associated—at the county level—with these critically important outcomes. It is therefore shocking that Maryland elites try to tackle so many problems—poverty, crime, educational deficiencies, underage sex, drugs, and alcohol—without addressing the role of family structure in any meaningful way. It is also an interesting coincidence that this report was being finalized as a major new book by University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney documenting many of these same associations was being released—The Two-Parent Privilege

Three major findings from the report stand out.  

First, high levels of family breakdown, and the associated problems, are not only the province of urban centers. Unsurprisingly, the report shows the city of Baltimore faces significant challenges. But many of the rural counties, too often ignored by politicians and officials, struggle too. In the Eastern Shore’s Kent County, for example, over half of all babies are born out-of-wedlock. In Southern Maryland’s Somerset County, close to one-third of children under 18 reside within households below the poverty level. Western Maryland’s Garrett County has one of the highest rates of severe depression in the state, and 25% of its 12th graders claim to have already had 4 or more sex partners. About 10% of Somerset’s youth claimed they first had sexual intercourse at age 13. These are serious problems in many of these bucolic areas.

Second, the refusal of state (and in some cases national) officials to collect certain key data is stunning and negligent. For example, Maryland literally does not report abortion rates to the CDC. When conducting the Youth Risk Behavior survey, Maryland schools exclude three critical YRBS items measuring1 whether students experienced rape or sexual violence. And in the YRBS nationally, there is no variable addressing respondent’s family structure;as simple as this would be to collect. The educational proficiency scores of students by race, ethnicity, disability status, and economic disadvantage can all be reported, but not by household marital status. These gaps are scandalous and may represent a near-literal attempt to erase the family from government record-keeping. In areas such as the marital status of adults and the homes of children and youth, some of the most consequential, salient aspects of people’s lives are not captured at all. This is a stumbling block to fully measuring and appreciating how these familial realities in turn impact so many important outcomes, at local levels.

Third, in the research literature and public policy debates about the impact of family structure, there is almost an obsession with “controlling for” income and poverty. That is, if we take these out of the equation, how much of the association between family structure and negative outcomes remains intact? And yet what we know, and what this report shows repeatedly, is that the association between family structure and income and poverty is indeed huge. In the real world, we cannot “control for” higher poverty and lower income for families that are not headed by married couples. 

What are we to do with differences in the median incomes for households with children under 18 where, even in rich counties like Montgomery, those headed by married couples are more than three times higher than those headed by single mothers? In every county these differences are vast. Or how about Western Maryland’s Allegany County, where 41% of children under 18 living with single mothers are poor, compared to just 8% living with married couples?

With this, the report shows just how often race gaps in income and poverty are actually rooted more in family structure. For example, at the county level, the correlation between the percentages of black people and the percentages of children under 18 living in poverty disappears when the percentages of children living with married couples is controlled. How can Maryland address racial income inequalities without also tackling marriage inequalities?

It is worth noting that this report also reveals a powerful association between family structure and violent crime in Maryland counties. This is clear in the scatterplot shown in Figure 2 below. In the county data used in this report, violent crime was strongly associated with poverty (.634, Prob. <.001.) This increases the difficulties faced by those living in poorer areas. Here again, marriage matters—to poverty and violent crime.

More state-level reports like this need to be created, looking at the health of marriage and family along with core social outcomes and the associations of one to another. So much that impacts the lives of Americans is created and addressed at local levels—in counties, towns, and cities. After all, this is where we live, form communities, attend church, and send our children to school. And it is the laws and regulations generated by states, counties, cities, and so on that shape the day-to-day realities of families. 

Policymakers, politicians, school officials, and other elites need to pay attention to what is happening to the family at the local level. It's time to use this information to impact the ways that we govern in order to promote human flourishing for all constituents, and not just those who are already enjoying “the two-parent privilege.”

David J. Ayers, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology at Grove City College, and serves on the Academic Advisory Board for the Maryland Family Institute. Jeffrey S. Trimbath is President of the Maryland Family Institute.

1. On “experienced sexual violence by anyone,” see https://yrbs-explorer.services.cdc.gov/#/tables?questionCode=H20&topicCode=C01&year=2017&location=MD  The data is available for 2017, but not after, while it does continue on many other states and the nation as a whole. On the latter, see https://yrbs-explorer.services.cdc.gov/#/tables?questionCode=H20&topicCode=C01&year=2021&location=XX   On “experienced sexual dating violence,” see the U.S. as a whole for 2021: https://yrbs-explorer.services.cdc.gov/#/tables?questionCode=H21&topicCode=C01&year=2021&location=XX  Compare this with Maryland, which last collected this information in 2017: https://yrbs-explorer.services.cdc.gov/#/tables?questionCode=H21&topicCode=C01&year=2017&location=MD  

2. See for example the actual YRBS questionnaires (standard high school, national high school, middle school), which do not include any capture of family structure information, even though age, sex, race, ethnicity, and even height and weight, are captured.