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Three Penn professors addressed the topic of marriage in the United States in their research papers, exploring the trends and nuances of the issue in modern times | DP File Photo

Marriage is not often a topic considered for scholarly research by most Penn professors. But three of them have addressed the topic in light of their own academic interests.

The percentage of adults who get married has decreased in the United States — in 1960, 72 percent of all adults were married, while in 2010 that share was only 51 percent in the United States. In 2014, 40 percent of births were to unmarried mothers, a sharp increase from when it stood at 5 percent of births in 1960 and 18 percent of births in 1980, according to a Pew Research Center report. In the last few decades, the United States government became more aggressive at enacting policies that promote marriage, believing it is a tool to combat poverty and establish family values.

While the implications of the changed marital scenario in the United States are complicated, certain Penn professors agree that policies the United States government has undertaken to promote marriage may not adequately target the problem.

The risks of single parenthood

Single parenthood in the United States has, on average, been more linked with the parenting of at-risk children, lower levels of income and education and higher levels of criminality and drug use.

According to research by economics professor Raj Chetty of Stanford University, single parenthood may affect the way children are raised in a way that leads to higher high school drop-out rates and higher likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system.

A substantial amount of research has also shown that, on average, children raised in two-parent families develop better cognitive and behavioral outcomes than children raised in single-parent households, said Sara Jaffee, director of graduate studies in Penn’s Psychology Department.

According to Jaffee, one of the main problems is that single-parent households tend to have lower levels of income, which leads to a higher chance for a child to be raised in poverty. In 1964, 36 percent of poor families with children were headed by single parents, while the figure was 68 percent in 2014, according to a Heritage Foundation issue brief.

A lack of income may also lead single parents to experience more stress and affect the way they treat their children, Jaffee said.

“Some of it has to do with the fact that ... single-parent families are experiencing higher levels of stress than parents in two-parent families, and that has effects on how they parent their kids,” Jaffee said. “Parents that are stressed out are less likely to shout at their kids — they’re more likely to use physical discipline with kids. That explains some of the behavioral and emotional outcomes that you see in kids in single-parent versus two-parent families.”

An increase in single-parent households

It is difficult for researchers to pinpoint the source of the increase in single-parent households in the United States as there are many possible factors involved.

One contributing factor is a changing economy that led to the decline of industry in the United States. Economic transformations over the last quarter-century affected many men’s income level, thus affecting their desirability as husbands.

“Now one of the problems is that it’s not necessarily a lack of desire to want to get married,” said Matthew Levendusky, associate professor in Penn’s Political Science Department. “It is a lack of finding someone who would be a suitable partner who would allow you to achieve a degree of financial stability.”

Certain experts also believe that the United States’ welfare system has made it easier and more beneficial for single mothers to depend on public benefits rather than a husband. According to a Heritage Foundation report, often a low-income single mother’s welfare benefits are substantially reduced if she marries an employed father.

The report holds that a single mother with two children who earns $15,000 per year would generally receive around $5,200 per year of food stamp benefits, but this would be cut to zero if she married a father with the same levels of earnings.

“There can be disincentives for low-income women, particularly [those] receiving welfare benefits, to marry their partners,” Jaffee said. “That explains part of it as well.”

Penn sociology professor Janice Madden, who studies labor markets as they relate to families, also pointed out that more flexible divorce laws across most states makes it easier for couples to dissolve their marriage. No-fault divorce laws, for example, do not require a showing of wrongdoing by either party.

“For example, in Pennsylvania, if you’ve been separated for two years, you can get a divorce,” Madden said. “In the old days you couldn’t get divorced unless you had fault. So if the husband wanted to run off with some younger woman, you couldn’t do that if he didn’t have grounds. The woman had some control over getting support. That is not true today.”

Government marriage policies

In order to combat the detrimental effects of single-parenthood child rearing, the United States government has passed programs aimed at promoting marriage.

In 2003, under George W. Bush’s administration, the Healthy Marriage Initiative was launched to provide relationship counseling to low-income married couples who had or were expecting children. An estimated $600 million have been spent on the program since 2001 — including government reserves — in an effort to keep married couples together and decrease the amount of single-parent households.

“[Government] says that the main reason that children are in poverty in the United States is because there are so many single-parent families,” Jaffee said. “[They say] keeping couples together would improve the financial outlook for the family and therefore improve children’s well-being. That is sort of the stated rationale for these programs.”

However, recent evaluations of the government initiative found that it has not led to more couples staying together, not changed the divorce rate and not reversed the declining marriage rate, according to a report by MDRC, a nonpartisan social policy research organization.

“It is a little worrying to me that we have millions of dollars every year that are being directed at these programs that aren’t really working in the way that they should be working,” Jaffee said, pointing out that more research into these programs is needed and that a greater investment on job training could help marriages remain financially stable.

The shortcomings of the Healthy Marriage Initiative have caused skeptics to question whether government should be encouraging marriage in the first place.

For Madden, government should remain neutral when it comes to marriage, and a bigger effort should be made on creating higher wages to make men more attractive husbands. The professor also noted the benefits of educating women about contraception as a way to decrease unintentional child births.

“That is a no-brainer,” Madden said. “Helping people to not have births that they do not want to have is in everybody’s interest. Indeed, the unintentional rate is much higher among unmarried women than among married women. I think there is evidence that contraception actually discourages unwanted birth.”

In fact, a 2003 research paper by Jaffee found that incentivizing marriage might not always produce the best outcome for children if the father displays high levels of antisocial behavior such as drug abuse and physical violence.

“I was interested to see whether you still get the benefits of living with two parents if one of those parents engages in high levels of antisocial behavior,” Jaffee said. “What we found is that it’s actually worse for kids. It is better to not have a father around if that is who your father is.”

Jaffee noted, however, that most absent fathers aren’t characterized by such high levels of antisocial behavior, but that they represent an extreme set of cases.

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