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Marriage rates a key factor in a state's economic prosperity, new report says
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How many parents are married there predicts a state's economic prosperity and mobility, child poverty and median family income better than factors like education, race and age, a new study says. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Marriage and a state's prosperity appear to be linked, according to a new report by the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.

States with higher marriage rates, particularly among residents who are parents, are economically healthier, their populations more upwardly mobile, their children less apt to live in poverty, researchers found.

The report, "Strong Families, Prosperous States," makes the case that impoverished children in those states that form the top quintile of married-parent families have 10.5 percent greater upward mobility compared to those in the lowest-quintile states. Their median family income is $3,654 higher. And they enjoy a 13.2 percent decline in the child poverty rate even after researchers controlled for confounding factors like education levels, race, tax policies and education spending.

The report was released Wednesday during a half-day conference in Washington, D.C. It was written by sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, a scholar for AEI and the Institute for Family Studies who teaches at the University of Virginia; Robert I. Lerman, an institute fellow at the Urban Institute and a professor of economics at American University; and Joseph Price, an associate professor of economics and a researcher at Brigham Young University.

"What we're finding is that when the family is strong, so too is the state economy, that state economic growth is higher, that state child poverty is lower, that state family median income is higher, that the American dream itself is stronger, that poor kids in states with stronger families are more likely to rise up the economic ladder as adults," said Wilcox.

States with higher rates of unmarried parenthood, like New Mexico and Louisiana, have more child poverty. Those with more married-parent families have less child poverty, Wilcox said.

Keynote speaker Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, cited statistics that roughly 60 percent of children born to women under age 30 are born outside of marriage and noted that about two-thirds of women who are mothers before age 30 have had a baby in a nonmarital relationship. It's a pattern, he said, that was noted in black families at the time of the Moynihan report 50 years ago, though the percentages were different. That was viewed as a racial crisis at the time. "This is an everyone crisis," he said.

Utah has the highest percentage of parents with children under 18 who are married, according to the report's data, taken from the 2013 Current Population Survey. New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota and Idaho round out the top five. At the other end of the spectrum, South Carolina edges out Mississippi, Arkansas, Delaware and Louisiana for the lowest percentage of married parents of minor children.

Chicken and egg

It's the first study to look at ties between marriage and productivity at the state level, according to Price.

Which way the causal arrow flies is debatable, according to Elisabeth Jacobs of the Center for Equitable Growth. But experts tend to agree that there are "really strong correlations between marriage rates and various economic outcomes," she said. The question is whether marriage causes the economic outcomes or economic outcomes impact whether people get married.

Some in the audience questioned how cohabitation figures in. Panelists said that it's possible stable cohabitation would lessen family instability that's what studies found in Sweden, where cohabitating relationships tend to last a long time and be stable. That has not been the case in the United States, where cohabitating relationships tend to be short-lived.

Ron Mincy said he understands those who believe having two parents whether cohabitating or married makes a difference to family resources and outcomes. He noted that he would have looked at the issues for cohabitating families to test that it is marriage rather than co-residence that is driving these results.

"It might be two heads are better than one, two incomes are better than one," said Mincy, director of the Center for Research on Fathers, Children and Family Wellbeing at Columbia University. He's also a co-principal investigator of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.

He wondered if the male earning to female earning ratio in states had an effect and asked whether some of the benefit is purchased at a cost of greater inequity in the salaries women earn.

The report found a particularly striking link between marriage and a state's economic prospects for young adults, 25-35, compared to those who are older but still prime working age. "This suggested that marriage plays a particularly important role in fostering positive labor market orientation among young men," it said.

Several speakers noted that young men, especially those with low educational attainment, have a hard time finding jobs that provide a wage that will support a family.

Future path

The report also offered recommendations on ways to strengthen marriages and thus prosperity. Among them:

Eliminate a so-called "marriage penalty" in welfare programs that are based on a family's financial resources.

Improve vocational education and increase the number of apprenticeships that are available, especially for young men.

Enact divorce reforms that would encourage couples to give their marriage another try if they were considering ending it. Those include extending the waiting period before granting divorce, if abuse, abandonment or substance abuse are not factors, as well as offering strong education programs aimed at bettering the chance of reconciliation.

Consider education and civic campaigns to get young adults to follow a specific sequence as they move through adulthood, getting an education, finding a job and marrying before they start having children. Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have promoted that as a "success sequence," the report said.