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Marriage: What Social Science Says and Doesn't Say

Jennifer Marshall

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Social science data indicate that the intact family--defined as a man and a woman who marry, conceive, and raise their children together--best ensures the current and future welfare of children and society when compared with other common forms of households. As alternative family forms have become more prevalent since the 1960s, social science research and government surveys have indicated an accompanying rise in a number of serious social problems.

Government's interest in marriage has been based primarily on its interest in the welfare of the next generation. Among the many types of social relationships, marriage has always had a special place in all legal traditions, our own included, because it is the essential foundation of the intact family, and no other family form has been able to provide a commensurate level of social security.

In all other common family and household forms, the risk of negative individual outcomes and family disintegration is much greater, increasing the risk of dependence on state services. A free society requires a critical mass of individuals in stable households who are not dependent on the state. The most stable and secure household, the available research shows, is the intact family. Therefore, the state has an interest in protecting the intact family and we should be cautious about facilitating other forms of household, the effects of which are either deleterious or unknown.

Compared with counterparts in other common household arrangements, adolescents in intact families have better health, are less likely to be depressed, are less likely to repeat a grade in school, and have fewer developmental problems, data show. By contrast, national surveys reveal that, as a group, children in other family forms studied are more likely to experience poverty, abuse, behavioral and emotional problems, lower academic achievement, and drug use. These surveys illustrate

  • Adolescents in intact families, as a group, are the least likely to feel depressed compared to those with divorced, step-, cohabiting, or single parents; (National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health)
  • The national average grade-point scores of children in intact families is 2.98, compared to 2.79 for children of cohabiting parents and 2.71 for children living in stepfamilies; (National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health)
  • The rate of youth incarceration is significantly greater for children raised in single-mother and stepfamily homes than for those raised in intact families, even after controlling for parental income and education; (National Longitudinal Survey of Youth)
  • Children in non-intact families are three times as likely to have children outside of marriage; (National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.) and
  • Rates of engaging in problem behaviors such as lying, stealing, drunkenness, and violence are sharply higher for children of divorce compared to children in intact families. (National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health)

During the 1990s, a serious public policy debate resulted when emerging social science data showed the consequences of several decades of experimentation with family forms. Out of this increased awareness grew a movement for policy and cultural changes to reinforce and restore marriage in America. Policy decisions--such as welfare reform--were grounded in these data. We have seen some of the fruit of those efforts in declining rates of teen sex and childbearing.

By contrast, the current debate over same-sex marriage is not anchored in sound research, and data on the consequences of children being brought up by same-sex couples remains scarce. Same-sex couples with children constitute a new form of household that has not been carefully studied. Nor has the objective of this policy discussion been clearly defined as the interest of children or the future of the nation's families.

Read the entire article on the Heritage Foundation website.

Posted: 5/28/04

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