Marriage makes families richer, adults happier, and children more successful, economic research suggests.
But in the last 40 years, Americans have rejected marriage in unprecedented numbers.
These choices to not get married could lead to a poorer, less successful, and less mentally healthy America, economist Melissa Kearney said in a live webcast on September 21 with the Brookings Institution.
Ms. Kearney is the Neil Moskowitz Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland. She researched the economic impacts of marriage on families and wrote a book about her findings, "The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind."
It may not be surprising that married parents give kids an advantage, she said. But people often don't want to talk about that because experts don't want to "upset any adults," she said.
"I really wondered how Americans stopped getting married and kept falling behind," she said.
Marriage, she found, has incredibly positive effects on children.
"Marriage, in practice, in this country, is the single best institution for delivering long-term stability" for parents and children, Ms. Kearney said.
But Americans—especially less-educated Americans—aren't getting married as much anymore, Ms. Kearney's research discovered. Statistics show 52 percent of single moms have never been married, she said.
Among mothers with high school degrees, white mothers, and mothers in their late 20s, births outside marriage doubled in 40 years, Ms. Kearney said.
This figure doesn't represent mothers who were married, then divorced, Ms. Kearney said.
'Two-Parent Privilege'Not having "two-parent privilege" will set many behind in life, Ms. Kearney said.
It's not a religious or cultural argument for marriage, she said. It's a fact based purely on economics, she said.
"I'm talking about it as a contract," she said of marriage. "It's a long-term contract between two adults to pool their resources and contribute to providing for a household together."
"The contract sometimes is broken," she said. "But it's broken much less often when it's established in the first place than when we see the dissolution of partnerships between unmarried parents."
This permanent contract—legal marriage—helps two adults achieve things one adult can't, Ms. Kearney said.
"Two people can make more money than one alone," she said. "Two parents have more combined time than one."
Studies also show married parents feel less stress, Ms. Kearney said. This often means they make better decisions while parenting, she said.
For children, more parental time and money often leads to success, Ms. Kearney said.
"If it's just [increased] income [that helps children], in theory, the government could send a check," she said.
But there are many more benefits to marriage, she said. And it's not clear why people are rejecting marriage more these days, she said.
Studies show that 20 years ago, marriage and birth rates rose when rural communities went through economic booms, she said. Studies today show that rural economic booms still result in rising birth rates, she said.
But those good economic times don't affect marriage rates anymore, she said.
"We're in a new social paradigm," she said. "So economics isn't going to be enough to turn things around."
Benefits of MarriageTwo adults who can depend on each other can do things that one adult can't, she said.
A married couple can have one partner quit his or her job temporarily to care for children, save on finances with economy of scale, and more, Ms. Kearney said.
And from an economist's perspective, marriage benefits children, she said.
"Millions of kids outside the college-educated class are growing up with only one parent," she said.
"They're less likely to graduate high school, they're less likely to graduate college, they are less likely to be married themselves and have higher earnings as adults. This is a major sort of source of perpetuation of intergenerational advantage and disadvantage."
The decline in marriage affects many areas of American life, she said.
African Americans fall behind economically because a large percentage percent of African American children don't grow up with fathers, Ms. Kearney said.
Teen pregnancy rates have decreased by 70 percent. And women now often delay having children in favor of career and education, she said.
Some have urged cutting social services to encourage single parents to marry.
That's not the answer, she said.
She has advocated for "more money to low-income families" and "an expanded child tax credit."
"I don't think that's going to make up for the difference" in the advantages experienced by "kids who are fortunate enough to be growing up with two loving, stable parents in their household."
Despite marriage's many benefits, it's unclear how to bring it back, Ms. Kearney said.
"We have to change social norms, or we have to reestablish this social norm. How to do that is much more complicated."
The answer isn't to bring back a culture that stigmatized leaving marriage so much that sometimes women stayed in abusive relationships, she said.
Before the 70s, she said, "single mothers and their kids were so stigmatized that too many women felt like they had no choice but to stay in terrible, even abusive relationships," Ms. Kearney said.
And she doesn't necessarily advocate for women to leave the workforce and make them dependent on men.
The decline in marriage is happening simultaneously with a major decline in trust for nearly all social institutions, Ms. Kearney said.
Research shows that trust in religion, media, and government all have declined, she said.
Americans also volunteer less now, she said.
This lack of trust in social institutions overall makes it harder to reverse any of them, said Ms. Kearney.
If media or government leaders tell Americans it's a good idea to get married, people who don't trust those institutions likely won't follow that advice, she said.
"The story of our time is of declining institutions, declining trust of institutions," she said.
She blames "a lot of economic incentives built into the way that people make money in this country right now that incentivize seeing the demise of institutions."