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POV: Healthy Families Are Key To Improving NC’s Economy


A major focus of the 2015 Legislative Session was how to improve North Carolina’s economy. Lawmakers hashed out the usual ideas—everything from creating better jobs to the benefits of lowering taxes—and some of these proposals became law. But the policy debate overlooked one key factor that matters even more to the prosperity of North Carolina—the condition of our families.

Leaving the health of the family out of fiscal policy discussions is a glaring omission that could cost states and families a more prosperous future, according to a recent study released October 21 by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Institute for Family Studies (IFS). The study, Strong Families, Prosperous States, found that “higher levels of marriage—and especially married parenthood—are strongly associated with more economic growth, more economic mobility, less child poverty, and higher median family income.”

During a recent AEI event that launched the report’s findings, one of the lead authors, W. Bradford Wilcox, noted that poor children in North and South Carolina have “a much lower chance of making it into the middle class [and] upper class, in part because there are fewer married-parent families” compared to other states such as Utah or North Dakota, which have higher levels of married parent families. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

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Graphic from the American Enterprise Institute, 2015

In the report, North Carolina is ranked 32nd in the nation for married-parent families, a fact that is also linked to our ranking as one of the lowest states for upward economic mobility (or the opportunity that poor children have of moving into the middle or upper class as adults). As the report explains, “upward economic mobility is more attainable in states where more parents are married. In states with comparatively few married families, the American Dream is in worse shape.”

North Carolina also has a higher child poverty rate than states with more married parent families, which is another key economic indicator. Because 24 percent of children live in poverty here, North Carolina is in the top 30 percent of states with the highest child poverty rates. By comparison, states like Utah, which is ranked number 1 in the report for married parenthood, and Minnesota, ranked fourth, have much lower rates of child poverty (below 16 percent).

To highlight the power of marriage to impact state economies, the report compared the 10 states where parents are least likely to be married with the 10 states where parents are most likely to be married, and found that living in one of the top 10 married-parent states is associated with a:

  • “$1,451 higher per capita GDP
  • 10.5 percent greater upward income mobility for children from lower-income families
  • 13.2 percent decline in the child poverty rate
  • $3,654 higher median family income.”
  • While these statistics are certainly fascinating, the most important question the report addresses is why married parenthood tends to produce better prosperity for states. It cites a number of contributing factors, two of which highlight the transformative nature of marriage and fatherhood for men:
  1. The labor force participation of men. In short, married men, and particularly married fathers, work longer hours (about 400 more hours per year), earn more money (about $16,000 more per year), and are less likely to quit their jobs, than unmarried men.
  2. Human capital accumulation. Children in married-parent families generally enjoy better household incomes, and more attention and affection from both parents, and are less likely to suffer abuse or neglect than children from other family forms. This “human capital” benefits children into adulthood, impacting everything from high school and college graduation rates to future marital health.
  3. Better public safety. States with higher levels of married parenthood, and specifically more fathers in the home, are safer. These states have significantly lower crime rates, and less crime means less of a drain on state resources. As Professor Wilcox explains in a summary of the report, “Strong families reduce the odds that children—especially males—act out as teenagers and young adults. In general, fathers provide discipline, an extra pair of eyes to monitor children’s behavior, and a model of appropriate male behavior that helps children and young adults steer clear of trouble with the law.”

To help states strengthen marriage, the report proposes four policy ideas, including ending the marriage penalty in means-tested welfare programs, and strengthening vocational education and apprenticeships. But it also recommends two policy changes that are not typically considered in state economic policy debates:

  • Reform divorce laws. The report recommends states pass laws to: extend the divorce waiting period to one year (as in NC) in cases that don’t involve abuse, abandonment, and substance abuse; provide high-quality education about the option of reconciliation for those married couples who wish to participate; and “create university-based centers of excellence to improve the education available to couples at risk of divorce.”
  • Launch efforts to strengthen marriage. The report suggests that states launch a public awareness campaign led by the private sector (churches, media, educators, businesses) that is aimed at encouraging young people to put marriage before parenthood by following the “success sequence” of education, work, marriage, and then parenthood (in that order).

The big takeaway for North Carolina from the report is that healthy families matter to healthy economies, and states can no longer afford to ignore the critical link between family structure and economic well-being. If we want to have a more prosperous state, and give every North Carolina child the best opportunity for a successful future, then we need to enact policies that strengthen marriage and encourage married parenthood.


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