Maybe a better place to start is to ask, What does a family need? There’s relational stability, like love, security, consistency. And economic stability, or a family’s ability to meet needs when it comes to housing, employability, and educational opportunity. How can a family reach the essentials? Research shows that the most stable homes include intact marriages — that a stable marriage, a two-parent home, is more likely to make way for economic stability.
Why? Like many families, we can begin with the wedding. Matrimony, in America in particular, has the potential to unlock an important economic bonus: the marriage premium. The idea is simple enough: Married couples, even before children enter the picture, tend to build more wealth than single people. And when the couple become parents, it’s likely they’ve had a financial head start compared to one or both single parents.
The intact-family premium, sociologists Robert I. Lerman and W. Bradford Wilcox say, builds upon the first and is ongoing. Essentially, two married, invested parents likely have more capacity to provide for a family’s needs when it comes to their health, social, emotional, and educational experiences. This manifests in many ways.
The family scholars of Why Marriage Matters report note statistics like these, for example: “Marriage reduces poverty and material hardship for disadvantaged women and their children,” citing an increase in living standards of about 65 percent higher than similar single mothers living with another adult. And “parental divorce reduces the likelihood that children will graduate from college,” showing that married parents contribute a median of $1,804 per year to a child’s college costs, whereas divorced (and not remarried) parents contribute just $502.
Higher education aside, a high-school diploma is a significant determinant to a child’s socioeconomic future. A two-parent home encourages this, too, sociologists said in 2014: In a home with both parents, men are 15 percent less likely to leave high school before graduation. And women, nine percent.
Certainly, a stable home is possible outside the two-nondivorced-parents form — by way of relationships we choose and networks we create, and it’s important to note that these statistical realities are necessarily general.
Yet according to Lerman and Wilcox, this kind of data “should command our attention as much as does raising education levels or addressing racial and ethnic disparities in economic life.” Because the percentage of children living with two parents has been steadily decreasing. In 1979, 74 percent of children aged 14–18 lived in a household that included two parents, according to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. By 1997, it was 54 percent. And in 1979, 13 percent of these children lived with a single parent; in 1997, 27 percent. The trend has not reversed.
The two conclude in their 2014 study that marriage is “central to the changing economic landscape of American families,” that its stability can influence the family’s socioeconomic future by determining their vulnerability to instability. And, yes, there is privilege in this inheritance.
There is (growing) inequality here. The relationship of wealth and marriage, of marriage stability and family economic stability, is reciprocal, and if an individual came from an intact family themselves, their own family is more likely to reap similar benefits. The inequality seems to perpetuate itself. This is where the damage becomes clear. Families with the least still suffer the most, and family inequality is the cruelest kind, as David Brooks has written: “It damages the heart.”
If the structure of a family so heavily influences the lives of its members, and its brokenness leaves a chasm in the road to the future, who will step up to fill the cracks?