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Family Income - Not Married Parents - More Apt to Impact Kids’ Well-Being

Image: Children play with a sprinkler at a playground in the Park Slope section of the Brooklyn borough of New York

Children play with a sprinkler at a playground in the Park Slope section of the Brooklyn. Brendan McDermid / REUTERS

Which matters more to a child’s future: living in a traditional family or having financial security?

The short answer: money, a new analysis concludes.

Simply put, while the marital status of a child's parents can influence the overall well-being of the child, the family's economic situation can be even more important, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data conducted by the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF).

Depressed household incomes are causing a decline in marriage rates in the U.S., fueling a rise in single-parent households, the report finds.

“Limited economic prospects, in turn, tend to translate into lower marriage rates, higher rates of divorce, and more cohabiting unions,” writes Shannon Cavanagh, associate sociology professor at the University of Texas. She's also an affiliated exert with CCF, a non-partisan, non-profit group, based at the University of Miami, that offers research on American families.

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Among the findings of the CCF report, titled “An Analysis of New Census Data on Family Structure, Education, and Income”:

  • 68 percent of children in the U.S. live in two-parent families, 24 percent with a single mother. In 1960, 90 percent of children lived in a two-parent family.
  • 9 percent of children from the lowest income bracket, regardless of the marital status of their parents, were receiving college diplomas. 77 percent of children raised in the top 25 percent of income had graduated college by age 24.
  • 42.5 percent of children from families living above 200 percent of the poverty line participate in extracurricular sports while 22.5 percent of children from families living in poverty do.
  • There is a growing gap in marriage rates between the college educated and those without a college degree. Of all children living with two married parents, 52 percent have at least one parent with a college degree. Of children living with single mother, 17 percent of them have a mother with a college degree.
  • Despite the economic recovery, more children receive food stamps than received them before the Great Recession. About 9 million received them before the recession. By 2014, 16 million received them.
  • 15.2 million children living in poverty also live in married, two-parent families. 16.7 million live with one parent.

These figures cut against the grain of oft-stated public opinions on traditional family composition.

Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FLA., stated “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent ... It’s called marriage.”

But, Cavanagh told NBC News, “marriage isn’t magic.”

Without resources, the stress of making ends meet can have a toxic effect on any relationship — and it can also present a barrier to getting married in the first place, she said.

“There is a clear economic bar to marriage and to the extent people cannot meet that bar they are less inclined to marry.”

That bar, she said, results in self-selection into marriage: People who can afford marriage get married.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Washington, asserts that low-wage, unreliable jobs for males can leave some women leery of marriage. Those women fear they might end up with one more mouth to feed due to their own, often low wage.

It’s not that impoverished people aren’t trying to do the best for the children, Coontz added. But wealth has become more powerfully self-perpetuating.

Wealthier parents, she said, can afford to spend more to provide their kids with certain advantages, like the best pre-schools, trips abroad and sports.

“Poor parents also increased the time they spent in child rearing,” Coontz said, “but they are totally outstripped [by wealthier parents] so the gap in spending on children is gigantic, now. Poor people are putting in more effort, but falling further behind.”where we see the biggest changes in marriage rates and non-marital fertility isn’t happening to everyone, it’s mainly the disadvantaged.”

"Where we see the biggest changes in marriage rates and non-marital fertility isn’t happening to everyone, it’s mainly the disadvantaged."

Some experts, who contend family structure is crucial for a kid's future, blame the fate of poor children on changes in birth control accessibility, women’s participation in the work force, no-fault divorce, and sexual mores since the 1960s.

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, did not dispute the report's findings, but said it was incomplete.

The economic factors are real, he said in an interview. "Shifts in culture and civil society and the economy all conspire to make middle and lower class families more fragile today, but family fragility has its own independent effects on kids and adults."

Easier divorce laws, greater tolerance for single parenthood add to a vicious cycle, he said. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, he argued, families were more stable and children did better as a result. He also pointed to a report of his own showing that married men saw an income advantage even if they had a high school diploma or less.

But Kristi Williams, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, said in an interview that such changes “happened to everyone, yet where we see the biggest changes in marriage rates and non-marital fertility isn’t happening to everyone, it’s mainly the disadvantaged.”