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“Murphy Brown” Was Wrong, New Research Suggests



Mark Stricherz - published on 10/28/14

Intact families and marriage help girls and women, too.

WASHINGTON — For some progressive feminists, “Murphy Brown” was right and Dan Quayle was wrong. The fictional television heroine sparked national controversy after she gave birth to child out of wedlock in 1992. Although Vice President Quayle denounced the creators of the show for glorifying single motherhood, feminist critics say that most older, college-educated women who choose to divorce or bear a child out of wedlock turn out fine. Polemicist Katha Pollitt called the program “the most feminist sitcom in TV history.”

Some feminist scholars, too, say that marriage traditionalists play up the benefits of marriage and intact families for men while ignoring the institution’s effects on women and girls.  Author Bella Paulo criticized the “Marriage Mafia” for making the “matrimanical claim” that marriage civilizes men despite evidence that married men spend less time with friends and in farm organizations, unions, and professional societies.

Marriage scholars do emphasize the economic and educational gains married men enjoy. At a press luncheon last Tuesday, Robert I. Lerman and W. Bradford Wilcox discussed the findings from their new report, “For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America.” They found that married men earn at least $15,900 more per year in individual income compared their single peers, while black married men earn $12,000 more and married men with a high school degree or less earn $17,000 more.

The gap between married and single men drives rather than reflects economic inequality, they said. “One of the most important elements in increasing inequality in the United States is family structure, not only in employment but the slow increase in median incomes,” Lerman told a half dozen reporters seated around a white table cloth at the American Enterprise Institute. Lerman said 25 percent to 30 percent of the inequality in the United States is the result of the “retreat from marriage.”

“Stable, two-parent families limit poverty, increase mobility, and are associated with a variety of positive social and health outcomes for adults and children alike. Two barriers to the formation of stable, two-parent families are having children outside marriage and becoming a noncustodial father,” they wrote in the 55-page report.

Yet the two scholars’ research showed not only that adults and children benefit from marriage in general but women and girls specifically. For example, they found that coming from an intact, two-parent family “was almost as important as race and educational attainment” in succeeding in school. Among their findings:

  • Girls raised in homes with their biological mother and father are nine percent less likely to flunk out of high school. Girls raised in step-parent families fare only slightly better than girls raised in single-parent homes, they found.

  • Girls raised in two-parent homes were 12 percent less likely to be single parents. 

  • Girls raised in two-parents homes work 179 more hours a year compared to their counterparts who grew up in single-parent homes, according to a study of 1997 data. 

  • Women from intact families have more than $4,375 in personal and $12,198 in family income than their counterparts raised in single-parent or step-parent situations. 

  • Married women have more family income: Young mothers have $33,000 more and middle-aged mothers have $52,000 more.

Lerman and Wilcox acknowledged that their findings were limited. Their research drew primarily on national-life studies in 1979 and 1997.

Their report showed a correlation rather than causation. They did not examine religion or religious adherence as independent variables. And their report did not distinguish between teenage single mothers and real-world “Murphy Browns” who bear children in their late 20s and 30s.

Also, the two scholars said some Americans flounder after getting married. They found that “marriage can be a drag on their family’s economic well-being, particularly in cases where a partner is consistently unemployed or when a marriage ends in divorce.” In addition, they found that married black women earned less than their single peers.

To revive marriage, Lerman and Wilcox called for policy and social campaigns. They said most federal programs for low-income families with children penalize couples who are married and these marriage penalties should end. Also, they called for expanding the federal child tax credit from $1,000 to $3,000 and for expanding a tax credit for men who don’t have children.

The release of the paper coincides with the founding of a new public-policy endeavor. The Home Economics Project will sponsor academic research and publish reports to business leaders, scholars, policy makers, and the public, according to the report’s summary. The American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies will sponsor the project.

Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

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