The connection between traditional families headed by married couples and economic prosperity is becoming so evident that the only intellectual resistance seems to be coming from some who argue that researchers don’t truly know whether it is marriage that leads to prosperity or prosperity that leads to higher levels of marriage.
That really isn’t much of an argument, and it was made less so this week by the release of a new study, published by American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.
The report, “Strong Families, Prosperous States,” presents evidence that states with the highest percentages of married-parent families also are the most prosperous, and that they have less childhood poverty and higher median household incomes.
This is true even when other factors, such as education levels, race, levels of taxation and public spending on education are taken into account. For states in the highest quintile in terms of marriage percentage, this equates to a $1,451 higher per capita GDP and 10.5 percent more upward income mobility for children from impoverished families, the report said. The median family income also is $3,654 higher in these states than in those in the lowest marriage quintile.
Not surprisingly, Utah came across looking good in this study. It has the highest percentage of parents who are married, and ranks second lowest in the decline of traditional married families between 1977 and 2013. California was the lowest decline, but the authors note that it already had a relatively low percentage of married couples in the ’70s.
We don’t need to recite the figures on Utah’s strong economic showing in recent years, despite the Great Recession.
The only negative aspect of the study was the authors’ acknowledgement that the evidence linking traditional families to prosperity has received little attention from economists, regardless of where they fall in the ideological spectrum. That is troubling, indeed.
This important link seems to have fallen victim to an atmosphere of political correctness in which people prefer not to make those with alternative familial arrangements feel bad. That is an understandable urge. There are many and varied reasons why people don’t live in committed marriages with children. But it does little good to ignore evidence suggesting the traditional family is the ideal situation, not just for children but for society.
The report contains four recommendations. Governments should reverse rules that penalize the welfare eligibility of low-income couples with children, should they become married. States should invest more in vocational education and apprenticeship programs to help low-income people have the means to marry. States should discourage divorce by extending waiting periods and providing education on options in cases not linked to abuse. And governments at all levels should back public initiatives to educate people on the benefits of marriage.
Each of these would be helpful in reversing declining marriage rates and promoting prosperity, but they require political will.
Arguments over the benefits of marriage should be considered settled. Yes, evidence suggests marriage rates decline during times of depression or severe recession. But this is generally irrelevant to the evidence that marriage promotes strong and stable communities in myriad ways. Governments, apparently, ignore this evidence to their peril.