A new report issued by the Institute for Family Studies revisits the critical question of how much the marital status of mothers and fathers matters for child well-being and young adult thriving.

Isabel Sawhill, a center-left Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Brookings Institution explains, “The short answer is that marriage still matters. And depending on what metric you examine, marriage can matter a lot.” She cites just some of the top social science summaries documenting this fact up to the present,

There is a long literature demonstrating that, on average, growing up in a married-parent household is better for children’s later life outcomes. This is the conclusion reached by multiple well-respected researchers, including Isabel Sawhill in Generation Unbound (2014); David Ribar in “Why Marriage Matters for Child Wellbeing” (2015); Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill in “The Decline of the American Family” (2016); Melissa Kearney in The Two Parent Privilege (2023); and Brad Wilcox in Get Married (2024).

But Sawhill adds that new, sophisticated research conducted jointly by the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute, and Child Trends lends to the long finding that married parents matter for children.

This research utilizes the Social Genome Model — “a microsimulation model that tracks children’s progress through multiple life stages, using a set of age-appropriate standards of success measured at the end of each life stage to determine whether they are ‘on track’ or not.” This model uses data from three major, nationally representative longitudinal surveys to analyze how well children in the United States are doing in key academic and developmental measures from birth up through adulthood.

Sawhill explains just a few of the benefits that married parenthood brings to children’s lives,

The finding that children who are born to married parents tend to enjoy better life outcomes is consistent with existing research that has established that children who grow up in two-parent families are more likely to graduate from college and work and are less likely to have children young, be depressed, be convicted for committing a crime, or end up poor as adults, on average.

The differentials throughout the lifespan between children raised by married mother and fathers and those by single or cohabiting parents is dramatic, as demonstrated here.

Sawhill explains, “Children whose parents are married when they are born have better life outcomes than children who were born to unmarried parents even after controlling for the mother’s education and age, birth weight, and doing separate analyses for race and gender.” These married-parent benefits translate in very practical boosts for children as they enter adulthood. Consider that impact on labor earning.

Marriage serves as a powerful protectant from childhood poverty, which drives so many other serious and debilitating childhood maladies. The comparisons are not even close, up to five times difference, as demonstrated in this chart.

Dramatically, Sawhill reports that “if the share of children living in single-parent families had stayed at the 1970 level, and we married single parents to men who were well-matched to the women in question, the current child poverty rate would be reduced by approximately one-fifth.” This means that, contrary to popular opinion, sex and the choices people make regarding family formation are indeed very public actions with very public consequences.

Sawhill explains that these findings from the Social Genome Model research project demonstrate “that there are long-term effects for children who are born to unmarried parents and corroborates that family structure is one significant reason children born into these types of families have lower rates of upward intergenerational mobility than other children.”

She continues, “we should be clear-eyed about the negative effects of single parenthood on children” adding, “Accordingly, we should discourage the next generation from believing that raising children alone is a good idea unless the parent involved intentionally chooses to do so.”

Family forms matter. Love by itself does not make for a healthy, productive family. The kind of relationships between the mother and the father matters, and research continues to demonstrate that marriage is superior to all other options.

Related Articles and Resources

Why Marriage Really Matters – 3 Focus on the Family Reports

Brad Wilcox Exhorts Young People to ‘Get Married’

Cohabitation Still Harmful – Even as Stigma Disappears

Don’t Believe the Modern Myth. Marriage Remains Good for Women

Don’t Believe the Modern Myth. Marriage Remains Good for Men.

Yes, Married Mothers Really Are Happier Than Unmarried and Childless Women

Married Fatherhood Makes Men Better

Marriage and the Public Good: A New Manifesto of Policy Proposals

 

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