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Lynn Schmidt is a columnist and editorial board member of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Around Valentine’s Day, love is certainly in the air. Society would surely benefit if marriage was in the atmosphere too. Compelling data show that strong families, which include married parents, make for safer communities and a more robust economy.
A report by the Home Economics Project, a research effort of the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, explored whether and how strong and stable families advance the economic welfare of children, adults and the nation as a whole. They found that states that have strong and stable families, especially as measured by the share of families headed by married parents, are more likely to show high levels of growth, economic mobility and median family income. They also tend to have lower levels of child poverty.
Violent crime is much less common in the states with larger shares of families headed by married parents, even after controlling for a range of socio-demographic factors at the state level. The violent crime rate (violent crimes per 100,000 people) sits at 343 on average for states in the top quintile of married parenthood, whereas those in the bottom quintile average a rate of 563.
These higher crime rates impact the quality of life and real living standards and are associated with lower levels of economic growth and mobility. This can perpetuate the cycle of poverty disproportionately in minority neighborhoods.
Their research also shows that young men from single-mother homes are about twice as likely to spend some time in jail or prison as young men from intact, married homes, even after controlling for family income and parents’ education, race/ethnicity and age. Similar disparities are evident in criminal victimization, with one study finding that youths from single parent and stepfamilies experienced higher rates of crime victimization compared with youths living with two biological parents, even after accounting for victims’ age, gender, race, family size and socioeconomic status.
The statistics are clear. Communities with greater numbers of single-parent homes have higher levels of crime and violence than communities with a higher concentration of two-parent families. Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson wrote, “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictors of … urban violence across cities in the United States.”
He and others conducted a study to assess in a non-ideological and rigorous manner the causal relationship between marriage and crime. They found that being married is associated with a significant reduction in the probability of crime, averaging approximately 35 percent. The findings were robust and consistent with the notion that marriage causally inhibits crime over the life course.
A potential road map to economic prosperity and increased safety may come in the shape of a triangle. This triangle of achievement is called the “success sequence” and is a formula to help young adults succeed. The formula involves three steps: get at least a high school education, work full time, and marry before having children.
Among millennials, people born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, who followed this sequence, 97 percent are not poor when they reach adulthood. The link remains strong when this cohort of young Americans reaches their mid-30s, according to one study. Racial and ethnic gaps in poverty become nearly nonexistent among young adults who followed all three steps.
Young adults who follow the sequence, even those who face structural disadvantages, are much more likely to achieve the American dream, or at least make a better life for themselves. Young adults from disadvantaged circumstances who follow the sequence are markedly more likely to overcome challenges and achieve economic success.
The vast majority of Black (96 percent) and Hispanic (97 percent) millennials who followed this sequence are not poor in their mid-30s, as is also the case for 94 percent of millennials who grew up in lower-income families and 95 percent of those who grew up in non-intact families. Moreover, for those who do not have a college degree but only finished high school and who work and marry before having children, 95 percent are not poor by their mid-30s.
Of course, those adverse circumstances that many urban youths face make it more difficult and lack the resources to follow the three steps of the sequence. That makes it even more imperative that we support young people during all three stages of the success sequence. This can be done by providing quality education, job opportunities and guidance, love and support as they navigate their relationships headed toward matrimony.
In the words of the recently departed composer Burt Bacharach “What the world needs now is love” — and maybe marriage, too.