What the Data Show About Marriage and Families

Range of Evidence Lends Credence to Backers of Traditional Lifestyles

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NEW YORK, SEPT. 20, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Supporters of traditional marriage might find comfort in new data that underline the importance of the family and religious values. A lengthy article in the June issue of Population and Development Review gave an overview of the research literature on these themes. The magazine is published by the New York-based Population Council, not normally noted for its support of traditional moral values.



The article, by Linda Waite and Evelyn Lehrer, unambiguously states: "We argue that both marriage and religiosity generally have far-reaching, positive effects." Among their main points, which they back up with five pages of bibliographical references, are these:

-- Married people are less likely than unmarried people to suffer from long-term illness or disability, and they have better survival rates for some illnesses. A growing body of research also shows an association between religious involvement and improved physical health.

-- Getting married, and staying married to the same person, is associated with better mental health. Marriage is also associated with greater overall happiness. While the connection between mental health and religion is much debated, Waite and Lehrer state that studies are suggestive of a positive association between the two.

-- A large body of literature documents that married men earn higher wages than their single counterparts. Although the relationship between religion and earnings is largely un-researched the article does note that religiosity has a positive effect on educational attainment, a key determinant of success in the labor market.

-- Children raised by their own married parents do better, on average, across a range of outcomes: infant mortality; health; schooling; and avoiding having children as unmarried teen-agers. Studies also document that parenting styles formed by religious affiliation are better for children's welfare. And kids who are religiously active themselves seem to do better at school and manage to avoid dangerous behavior.

-- Emotional and physical satisfaction with sex are higher for married people.

-- Married couples have notably lower levels of domestic violence.

Trying to explain the causal factors behind these results, Waite and Lehrer observe that both marriage and religion lead to positive outcomes by providing social support and integration. They also encourage healthy behaviors and lifestyles. Notably, the benefits from marriage apply to those who make a lifetime commitment. Both divorce and cohabitation significantly reduce the positive effects.

A payoff

A recent study by the Heritage Foundation put a figure on just how much marriage is worth in economic terms. Single mothers who married would see an increase of $10,199 to $11,599 in their median family incomes, said Heritage Foundation analyst Patrick Fagan. He wrote a report on the subject with other Heritage researchers. The Washington Times reported on the study May 28.

The Heritage researchers said that new light has been shed on the topic by the ongoing Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study. That five-year study, conducted by researchers with Princeton and Columbia universities, involves some 4,700 new parents who are low-income and typically unmarried.

Marriage has a significant impact for single mothers who don't work, the study found. These welfare mothers who remain single will live in poverty because welfare benefits rarely, if ever, lift a family out of poverty. "By contrast, if the mother marries the child's father, the poverty rate drops dramatically to 35%," the researchers said.

And the psychological benefits of family life were highlighted in a study published last month in Denmark. Adults with children are less likely to commit suicide than those without, the Associated Press said in its Aug. 11 report on the study. Likewise, young children were found to add an extra layer guarding against suicide for women. The study involved 18,611 people in Denmark who committed suicide from 1981 to 1997.

"It is widely expected that childbearing is most often a positive life event that may prevent people from ending their life," Drs. Ping Qin and Preben Bo Mortensen of Aarhus University in Denmark said in the study.

The researchers compared data on suicide victims and a control group. Nearly 47% of suicide victims had no children, and fewer than 23% had two or more children. Only 2% of suicide victims had a child younger than age 2.

The results confirm some previous data but also "fly in the face" of some assumptions about the impact of having children, said psychologist David Clark of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

For example, given the prevalence of postpartum depression, which experts think occurs in at least 10% of pregnancies, it might be assumed that suicide would be more common among parents and especially mothers, Dr. Clark said. Also, "people think having a lot of kids is economically stressful" and could lead to mental distress or even suicidal thoughts, he said. On the contrary, the study illustrated the strength of the biological and psychological bonds that occur between parent and child.

Room to improve

Census data from the United States and England show that much remains to be done to improve family life. The Washington Times on June 17 highlighted some of the findings contained in the U.S. Census Bureau's report, "Children's Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2002."

The bureau found that in 2002 around 69%, or 49.7 million, of the nation's 72.3 million children (younger than 18) lived with two parents. That percentage has remained essentially unchanged since the early 1990s. But 19.8 million children are living with single parents. Of these, 83%, or 16.5 million, lived with their mothers.

Data from the 2000 U.S. census showed the number of unmarried couples had surged in the previous decade, to 5.5 million from 3.2 million, the New York Times reported March 13. "There is a very significant increase in the number of unmarried-couple households," said Martin O'Connell, chief of the branch on fertility and family statistics at the Census Bureau.

In the United Kingdom, the number of households headed by married couples has fallen below 50% for the first time, the Times of London reported Feb. 14. Data from the 2001 census covering England and Wales revealed that the proportion of married households plummeted from 55% to 45% between 1991 and 2001. The proportion in 1981 was 64%. In 1971 it was 68%.

At the same time there has been a steady increase in the number of never-married, single people living on their own, cohabiting couples and lone parents. Some 22% of children under age 16 now live in lone-parent families, with another 11% living with cohabiting couples.

More recently, London's Sunday Times reported Sept. 7 on a study showing that single mothers are more prevalent in countries where the state provides plenty of benefits. "Increases in public support for single mothers are significantly associated with a higher prevalence of never-married and divorced mothers," said the author of the study, Libertad Gonzalez of Northwestern University in Illinois.

Gonzalez analyzed the levels of single motherhood in 17 Western countries and compared them with the levels of state benefits. Raising benefits likely lead to more single mothers, she found.

Meanwhile, efforts continue in many countries to undermine marriage and the family. In Chile, the Parliament is considering legislation that could introduce divorce for the first time in that country. Canada is pursuing legislation to recognize same-sex unions as a form of marriage. And in the United States, proponents of same-sex unions are awaiting the outcome of a court case on the issue in Massachusetts. Another case is under way in New Jersey.

If courts and legislatures have doubts about upholding traditional marriage, they might do well to look at what medical and census data are showing.