The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Not a Privileged Institution

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

During the 1960s, the counterculture dismissed marriage as a “middle-class” institution. Now, the same crowd is claiming that marriage is an “upper-middle class” institution that serves only the interests of college-educated Americans. These progressive thinkers likewise tell policymakers that they should not expect low-income Americans—especially African-Americans and Hispanics—to marry. After all, they reason, because the benefits of wedlock don’t trickle down to those at the lower end of the income scale.

Yet an examination of low-income, minority women with children by Terrence D. Hill of Florida State University debunks that theory, finding that women in his sample who were continuously married over the two-year study period exhibited the highest levels of mental and emotional health.

The sociologist analyzed longitudinal data representing more than 2,000 women, mostly mothers of the Welfare, Children, and Families survey of households with children in low-income neighborhoods of Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio. The sample represented primarily women who were single (55 percent), separated (10 percent), or cohabiting (1 percent). On average, the respondents reported low-levels of psychological distress and “good” health. Yet the 26 percent of respondents who reported being married at both survey dates (1999 and 2001) “exhibited lower levels of psychological distress from the baseline to follow-up than women who reported no exposure to marriage,” a consistent and robust pattern that Hill found across his first set of statistical models (p < 0.001 in all five regressions).

Moreover, his analysis established that the lower levels of financial hardship also reported by his continuously married respondents “explain only a small portion” of the association between mental-health and continuous marriage. Indeed, in tests that controlled for both financial hardship and change in hardship, the magnitude of the effects of being continuously married on emotional health remained significant (p < 0.001).

The “continuously married” category, which Hill claimed is “one of the stronger predictors” in his analysis, may need to be put in context. Women respondents who entered marriage, as well as women who exited marriage, followed psychological-distress trajectories of never-married peers. The fact that newlyweds did not enjoy the lower levels of distress observed among their continuously married peers led Hill to suggest “it may take a significant amount of time for low-income urban women with children to accrue the psychological rewards of marriage.”

This finding indicates that the benefits of marriage should not be viewed an incentive to lure the unmarried to the wedding chapel. Unlike the lottery, wedlock promises no instant prize with little cost to the ticket holder. But despite what critics say, marriage does deliver remarkable benefits to couples of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds when husband and wife honor their vows by serving one another.

(Terrence D. Hill, “Marriage and the Health of Low-Income Women With Children,” forthcoming in Journal of Family Issues.)