In his State of the Union address, President Obama talked about how to deal with what he frames as unjust income disparity in our nation. Among his responses were proposals to raise taxes on higher income brackets to benefit those with lower incomes. The President once again ignored the role that marriage plays in opening the doors of opportunity to all Americans.
If the President and other policymakers are serious about increasing opportunity, they must address the breakdown of marriage. In a 2014 study of more than 40 million children and their parents, Harvard and University of California at Berkeley scholars found that “the single strongest correlate of upward income mobility” is “the fraction of children living in single-parent households.” The researchers also found that “family structure correlates with upward mobility, not just at the individual level but also at the community level.”
This study goes hand in hand with previous research. For example, studies have shown that children growing up in married-parent families are 82 percent less likely to live in poverty and they tend to fare better on a range of emotional and psychological outcomes. They also have higher levels of academic achievement and educational attainment. In addition, they are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as early sexual activity or substance abuse and are less likely to exhibit anti-social behavior.
Given these facts, marriage trends in America should be cause for concern. As The Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity reports, throughout the past four decades marriage rates have plummeted and the percentage of births outside marriage has skyrocketed, increasing fourfold to over 40 percent today. Among blacks, the rate of unwed childbearing is more than 70 percent.
The damaging impact that family dissolution and instability have on our nation’s most vulnerable should raise a new clarion call for action within civil society and the policy arena.
In a recent presentation at the Heritage Action policy summit, “Opportunity for All,” Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) stressed the importance of the intact family for children’s well-being, noting that the family is “an incubator of human flourishing, of personal and economic success.” Senator Lee outlined examples of actions that lawmakers can take to strengthen the family. These included eliminating the “parent penalty” as well as eliminating the “marriage penalty” in the tax code and in the welfare system. He also touched on the problem of overcriminalization, noting: “We have a dysfunctional criminal justice system that keeps reformed, nonviolent offenders languishing behind bars while their sons are stuck seeking father figures in the streets.”
Ironically, the President chose as his guest for the State of the Union address a young woman who worked with her husband to successfully lift their family up from financial hardship. In her words, “We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.” That wasn’t the President’s emphasis, but it is a reminder that the intact family is a source of resilience and strength even in the face of adversity.