Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


rich-kids

(PHOTO: KATY SPICHAL/SHUTTERSTOCK)

‘The Atlantic’ Is Wrong About Married Parents Producing Richer Kids

• October 31, 2013 • 10:30 AM

(PHOTO: KATY SPICHAL/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Sure, kids with married parents appear to have better outcomes by some measures. But a narrow reading of the data ignores strong evidence about the viability of alternative family structures.

Are married parents better at raising kids to earn more money? American Enterprise Institute scholar W. Bradford Wilcox argues in the affirmative over at The Atlantic. Wilcox points to his own research, which “indicates that adolescents raised in intact, married homes are significantly more likely to succeed educationally and financially.” Problem is, that research doesn’t back up the more important point he makes later in the piece: that married parents cause kids to do better on these fronts than those raised within other family structures. Another study he cites that found a correlation between rates of single motherhood and economic mobility at the regional level is strong and significant, but still doesn’t prove the causal connection that anti-welfare activists and politicians have been assuming for ages.

Wilcox spends most of the piece describing the very real correlation between married parents and many positive outcomes for children—specifically, higher rates of college attendance, lower rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and higher rates of economic mobility in places. But then he pivots to arguing that the “strong spillover effects” of marriage are causal—that the institution itself has some magical quality that produces more successful kids, independent of parenting style, financial resources, community support, and even genetics—by briefly pointing to two other studies that don’t actually do much to help his case. In fact, they look at only one type of alternative family structure: kids whose parents got divorced.

To continue to debate the importance of the institution of marriage is distracting from serious efforts to actually produce happier, more successful kids.

The first, by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, looked (PDF) at adults from states that liberalized divorce laws, finding that they were more likely to be living with divorced parents as kids, and to have lower family incomes and less education as adults. The article says little about causality; in fact, Gruber writes that the “substantial effects” he found “seem unlikely to be driven solely by parental divorce.” The second, a longitudinal study of twins with divorced parents by a University of Indiana geneticist, pointed to mild causality in some areas (emotional problems, educational attainment), but not in others (drug use, early sexual activity). But, again, the article doesn’t get anywhere near isolating divorce’s role enough to rewrite the consensus among the author’s colleagues. Penn State sociologist Paul R. Amato distilled that consensus in his recent literature review, which included the twins study: “Rather than ask whether divorce affects children, a more pertinent question may be how and under what circumstances does divorce affect children either positively or negatively?” It might be that the style of the split (acrimonious versus amicable) is more important than the fact of the split itself. Amato’s sweep reveals, more broadly, that after parents split, some kids do better, some do worse. But most turn out just fine.

If marriage causes children to earn more, then the logical public policy response is to encourage people to get married. If marriage merely correlates with children earning more, than there is no logical policy response, because it’s possible, even likely, that other factors are more essential to a child’s upbringing. Wilcox is right to point out that kids with married parents, on balance, appear to have better outcomes by some measures. But his narrow reading of the data ignores strong countervailing evidence about the viability of alternative family structures (some of which I explored in a recent piece).

Most importantly, the genie is completely out of the bottle when it comes to the spread of alternative family structures in America. To continue to debate the importance of the institution of marriage, and not the best policies for improving the parenting skills of all parents, or creating the right economic conditions for stable families, is distracting from serious efforts to actually produce happier, more successful kids.

Michael Fitzgerald
Michael Fitzgerald is an associate editor at Pacific Standard. He has previously worked at The New Republic and Oxford American Magazine.

More From Michael Fitzgerald

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.