Two children swinging on a beachside playground, with other children playing on slides, monkey bars, and other playground equipment in the background. Photo by Cottonbro Studios under Pexels license.

Marriage is having a moment. One reason: about one-quarter of children in the United States live with a single parent, usually their mother. In 2022, more than one-third of children in single-parent families were poor, and children raised by a single parent are less likely to finish high school or college and more likely to experience mental health and socioemotional challenges compared to peers who always lived with both parents. Getting married appears to solve many of the challenges that single-parent families face: married couples have more time, money, and energy to invest in each other and their children.

But is it really that simple? Probably not, because family life in the United States is defined by change. Most children already spend some time living in married-couple households and most children also spend time living in some other arrangement. If we want to improve outcomes for children, we need to look to strategies beyond their parents’ marital status.

The United States has a long history of encouraging people to get married. In the current round, in separate books, University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney each exhort their fellow Americans – particularly adults who have not completed college – that two-parent family households offer the surest way to achieve economic and emotional security, raise happy, healthy, and successful children, and reduce inequality in the next generation.

The message to get partnered up has caught on. (Wilcox is clear that his message is to promote marriage. Kearney is more circumspect, but leans heavily on marriage when she describes the benefits that accrue to two-parent families.) The imperative is particularly strong because the American social class divide in single parenthood is so pronounced: among parents living with minor children, those who have not completed college are more than twice as likely to be unmarried compared to college-educated parents (39% vs 17% in 2022). Commentators from across the political spectrum have embraced the argument that two-parent households – and especially marriage – should be central to any serious plan to increase family economic security, improve child welfare, and make child outcomes more equal. To pretend otherwise – in particular, to valorize family diversity while ignoring family inequality – is a disservice to unpartnered parents and their children.

Why would marriage be advantageous for children? Today, in most married-parent families, both parents are working, so there is more money to go around compared to single-parent families. Two parents also means more time and emotional energy available to invest in children, support from a wider kin network, and more opportunities for social connections. On average, marriages last longer than cohabiting relationships or spells of single parenthood, and the resulting stability and routine are generally good for children. All of these factors are associated with children’s better outcomes in marriage – compared to single-parent families on average. It’s not just what happens inside of married-parent families that matters. People who marry are different from people who do not. The characteristics that make people attractive on the marriage market might also make them effective parents. And beyond the household, families are embedded in a network of institutions that reward people for being married, including in employment, housing, and federal policy.  

Yet there are many caveats. First, not everyone can find a marriageable partner. What that means changes with time and context, but in general, people have expectations about what a potential partner should bring to a marriage. When the pool of potential partners falls short on characteristics like job stability, earnings trajectories, and good health, people are less likely to marry.

Further, marriage does not carry the same gains for everybody. From a sociological perspective, unequal returns to marriage largely reflect systemic inequalities outside of marriage. For example, both Black and white children in married-parent families have better outcomes compared to their same-race peers in single-parent families. Still, the gains are smaller for Black children not because of differences in the attributes of Black compared to white families, but because of structural racism and discrimination. This includes enduring differences in school quality, employment opportunity, labor force attachment, and contact with the carceral system that contribute to Black men’s lower earnings and availability for marriage relative to white men’s. Increasing marriage rates in population subgroups that benefit less from marriage is unlikely to close racial and social class gaps in family resources or child outcomes.

And getting married is different from staying married. In recent years, the divorce rate has declined for college-educated adults, but it has increased for adults with less than a college education. Among adults married in 2005-2009, 14.2% (or one in seven) of college-educated adults had ended their marriage through separation or divorce 10 years later. Among adults with less education, the share of marriages ending in divorce was two to three times higher.

As the last point illustrates, children experience an enormous amount of family change. The statistic that one-quarter of children are living with a single parent is a point-in-time estimate. This means that in any year since around 1990, around 25 out of 100 children were living with one parent.

But when we look across the whole span of childhood, we see something quite different. Sociologists Susan L. Brown, Bart Stykes, and Wendy Manning described the family structure pathways experienced from birth to age 12 among adolescents in 2006-2010. They found that only 3 percent of children always lived with a single parent. Even among those born to a single parent, only 17 percent stayed in that arrangement. Nearly all other such children saw their parent eventually marry or cohabit, either with the child’s second parent or a new partner.  And only a minority of adolescents – about 44 percent – lived continuously with their married parents to age 12. The remaining 56 percent spent part of childhood living outside of their parents’ shared marriage. These include children born to married parents who experience their divorce or a parent’s death as well as children born to cohabiting or unpartnered parents.

In total, Brown and colleagues estimated that 84 percent of youth spent part of childhood in a married parent household and more than half spent time outside of marriage. In other words, most children will experience marriage and something other than marriage (living with a single parent or cohabiting parents or both) before their twelfth birthday. From this perspective, rather than encouraging more people to get married, it makes sense to support children’s well-being in ways that are not dependent on their family structure. Evidence from family sociology suggests that a combination of the following five reforms could be productive:

  1. Develop child-friendly federal family policy. Compared to most other rich countries, the United States has little in the way of federal family policy. Paid parental leave from work following a birth or adoption or during periods of intensive caregiving, child tax credits, subsidized high-quality child care and public preschool, and a minimum living wage are strategies already in place in some US states and other countries that reduce family stress and improve parents’ and children’s well-being. Cross-national comparative research also shows that single-parent family poverty rates are lower and family structure-based disparities in learning achievement are smaller in countries with more comprehensive family policy.
  2. Give cohabiting parents the same recognition and rights as married parents. More than one-quarter of US children are born to cohabiting parents who lack access to the public protections afforded to marriage. The federal government recognizes over 1100 statutory provisions under which benefits, rights, and privileges depend at least partially on marital status. These include tax advantages, qualification as a caregiver under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and spouses’ and children’s eligibility for Social Security and public assistance programs, veterans’ benefits, and immigration and naturalization. There are no provisions for cohabiting partners under these federal statutes. Further, cohabiting partners are generally excluded from eligibility for partners’ health insurance, denied visitation when a partner is institutionalized in a hospital or prison, and have no economic protection when a union ends (except where the couple established a cohabitation agreement). Only six states and the District of Columbia allow registered domestic partnerships, which grant the same rights and protections as marriage under state law.
  3. Foster the economic conditions that sustain families and relationships.[CU1]  Men’s unemployment and wage stagnation are powerful predictors of divorce in marriages formed since the mid-1970s. The economic uncertainty that arises from job loss and wage decline drives family stress and increases the potential for conflict. Further, men report experiencing a sense of displacement and loss of purpose when they no longer meet the “breadwinner” role that organized much of family life in the past century. Structural change to broaden job stability and wage growth as well as ongoing cultural change around gendered family roles can each help to stabilize family relationships through increased economic security and reduced psychological and family stress.
  4. Promote co-parenting and child-parent ties. Children benefit from the time and resources both parents provide even when parents live apart. When formerly partnered parents are able to coordinate care, support each other in parenting roles, and make decisions jointly, children benefit in terms of their social competency, peer relationships, and positive behavior.
  5. Capitalize on the strengths of extended families and communities. Many children living with a single parent thrive under the support of other second caregivers, including grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other adults who occupy fictive kin roles in family systems. Much of the evidence is drawn from scholarship engaged with minoritized families, particularly Black families that have built robust support outside of two-parent marriage in response to evolving structural barriers to marital stability. Assigning greater social and economic value to the role that extended kin and social caregivers play can make these meaningful relationships more visible, durable, and effective in supporting children’s development.

Recommended Readings

Brady, David, Ryan M Finnigan, and Sabine Hubgen (2017). Rethinking the Risks of Poverty: A Framework for Analyzing Prevalences and Penalties. American Journal of Sociology. 123: 740-786.

Brown, Susan L., Bart Stykes and Wendy Manning (2016). Trends in Children’s Family Instability, 1995-2010. Journal of Marriage and Family. 78: 1173-1183.

Cross, Christina, Paula Fomby and Bethany Letiecq (2022). Interlinking structural racism and heteropatriarchy: Rethinking family structure’s effects on child outcomes in a racialized, unequal society. Journal of Family Theory & Review. 14: 482-501.

Heuveline, Patrick, Hongxing Yang, and Jeffrey M. Timberlake (2010). It Takes a Village (Perhaps a Nation): Families, States, and Educational Achievement. Journal of Marriage and Family. 72: 1362-1376.

Killewald, Alexandra (2016). Money, Work, and Marital Stability: Assessing Change in the Gendered Determinants of Divorce. American Sociological Review. 81: 696-719.

Paula Fomby, Ph.D. is a sociologist and family demographer at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies how families and social institutions interact to shape children’s well-being and life chances, with particular attention to economic and racialized inequalities. Her research has been supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Science Foundation and has appeared in peer-reviewed outlets including Demography, Annual Review of Sociology, American Sociological Review, Journal of Marriage and Family, Journal of Family Theory and Review, and Journal of Health and Social Behavior.