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The U.S. Economy Needs Some ‘Family Time’

5 minute read
Bradford Wilcox, Robert I. Lerman and Joseph Price are the authors of the report "Strong Families, Prosperous States: Do Healthy Families Affect the Wealth of States?"

Last Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan listed “family time” as one of the main conditions under which he would be willing to serve as U.S. House Speaker, reigniting a conversation about work-life-balance and the role of dads in the home. It’s a welcome debate: As it turns out, the U.S. economy needs some family time, too.

In this political season, it’s not surprising to hear divergent responses to how to revive the U.S. economy: Conservatives tend to stress the stimulatory power of lower taxes and reduced regulations, while progressives tend to think public investments and greater economic equality are more conducive to growth.

Oddly, economists on both sides of the ideological spectrum often miss an important vehicle for lifting growth in the U.S.: the family. This is ironic, given that the word “economics” has its roots in the Greek word oikonomia, which means the “management of the household.” It’s also a major oversight, as the findings of our new study confirm.

The Top 10 and Bottom 10 States: Children Living with Married Parents in America

In Strong Families, Prosperous States, we find that states with a higher number of families headed by married parents enjoy significantly higher levels of economic growth, not to mention greater economic mobility, higher median family income, and less child poverty than states with more families headed by single and cohabiting parents. That is one big reason why states like Utah, New Hampshire, and Minnesota have child poverty rates below 16% is that they are first, third, and fourth when it comes to the share of children living with married parents. By contrast, more than 24% of children live in poverty in Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and New Mexico partly because they are ranked 50th, 49th, 48th, and 47th when it comes to the share of children living in married-parent families.

By our estimates, the average state per capita GDP would be 4.2% higher if states enjoyed their 1980 levels of married parenthood. Likewise, across the states, child poverty would be 17% lower and family median income would be 10 percent higher if states enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood. The bottom line: Our nation’s economy would be in much better shape if more families were headed by married parents.

Why do married families matter for the economy? One reason they matter is that men are more likely to give work their best effort when they are married with children than when they are single and fancy free. In the words of Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, “men settle down when they get married,” noting that family life seems to motivate men to seek work, to work harder, and to steer clear of activities that jeopardize their work. Indeed, prime-aged men who are married with children are 13 percentage points more likely to be in the labor force than their unmarried, childless peers. Another reason why strong families matter is that married households benefit from income pooling, economies of scale, and higher rates of saving than do families in unmarried households.

Because they get more time, attention, financial support, and consistent discipline from their parents, children from intact families are more likely to graduate from high school and college. We find that states in the top quintile of married parenthood have high school graduation rates that are 7.7 percentage points higher than states in the lowest quintile, even after controlling for states’ median family income, educational attainment, age and racial composition. Likewise, strong families also reduce the odds that teenage boys and young men get off track and end up in trouble with the law. In fact, violent crime rates are 39% lower in states in the top quintile of married parenthood compared to states in the bottom quintile. This matters for economic prosperity because high levels of crime engender significant spending on police and incarceration, inhibit male labor force participation, reduce economic mobility for poor children, and serve as a drag on the economy.

Given the drag that the retreat from marriage—with divorce and single-parenthood more than doubling since the 1960s—has had upon the nation’s economy, what can be done to strengthen marriage? First, policymakers should focus on bolstering the economic fortunes of poor and working-class families hit hardest by the retreat. Bipartisan legislation to boost vocational and apprenticeship training now pending before the Senate, like the LEAP Act sponsored by Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), would be a help here.

Second, federal and state policymakers should move to end the substantial penalties embedded in our welfare policies. In some states, low-earning couples with children stand to lose as much as 30% of their real income by marrying. This is crazy; public policy should stop penalizing low-income married families.

Finally, we have to confront a culture that tends to minimize the virtues—commitment, fidelity, and compromise—and the ideals—e.g., bearing and rearing children within marriage—that strong families require. Lest this seem quixotic, it’s important to note that a series of local, state, and federal campaigns to reduce teen pregnancy seem to have helped to bring the country’s teen pregnancy rate down by more than 50 percent since 1990. It’s time for a similar campaign on behalf of marriage before babies, led not by government, but rather by leaders in civil society, business, pop culture, education, media, and the religious sector. Such a campaign could go a long way towards strengthening American families, and boosting the prosperity of countless children, families, states, and the nation as a whole.

Bradford Wilcox is a sociologist at the University of Virginia, Robert I. Lerman, and Joseph Price are economists at the Urban Institute and Brigham Young University respectively. Their report, Strong Families, Prosperous States: Do Healthy Families Affect the Wealth of States?, was published by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.

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