Blog

Marriage scholar: As families go, so goes Oklahoma’s economy

Timothy Tardibono - Monday, February 08, 2016

By W. Bradford Wilcox

When it comes to the health of the Oklahoma economy, virtually all eyes have been on the struggling energy sector. That's because recent declines in oil prices have exacted a toll on Oklahoma's economy.

But policymakers, civic leaders and ordinary Sooners shouldn't lose sight of another factor dampening Oklahoma's fortunes: the health of Oklahoma's families. The state is ranked 38th in the nation in its share of children being raised by married parents, with only 66 percent of Sooner children living in a home headed by married parents. This matters because fragile families, especially ones headed by single parents, hinder economic growth, family prosperity and the health of the American Dream.

"Strong Families, Prosperous States," a report I recently coauthored, found that states with more families headed by married parents enjoyed significantly higher levels of economic growth, family median income, and less child poverty, compared with states with fewer married-parent families. Indeed, if Oklahoma enjoyed its 1980-levels of married parenthood, its per capita GDP would be 2.5 percent higher, its median family income would be 5.6 percent higher, and its child poverty rate would be 8.5 percent lower. What's clear from the data is that Oklahoma's economy would be in better shape if Sooner families were stronger.

Married parent families matter for at least four reasons. First, men who get and stay married are more likely to work harder, work smarter and more successfully, pulling in between 10 percent and 20 percent more in income than their comparable single peers. Men who are married with children are about 13 percentage points more likely to be in the labor force, compared with men who are childless and unmarried.

Second, married families are more likely to enjoy economies of scale, to pool their income, and to put aside money for savings — all of which boost their economic fortunes, especially compared to families headed by single parents.

Third, children in states with more married families are more likely to acquire the education they need to thrive in today's marketplace. Finally, crime rates are markedly higher in states like Oklahoma, which has a violent crime rate of 441 per 100,000, well above the national average of 368 per 100,000. Crime serves as a drag on the economy, both because law enforcement and incarceration are expensive, and because incarcerated men are not in the labor force.

Given the family-prosperity connection, it's important for policymakers, civic leaders and everyday Sooners to consider three steps:

• Gov. Mary Fallin and state lawmakers should seek to eliminate marriage penalties in programs serving lower-income families, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Growing evidence suggests such penalties discourage lower-income couples from marrying.

• The state should continue supporting the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The initiative is one of the bright spots on the state's family landscape, as its programs have been shown to increase the quality and stability of family life among lower-income Sooner families. Indeed, one study found that OMI was responsible for a 3-percentage-point increase in the share of Sooner children living with two parents.

• Civic, religious and business leaders should launch a privately funded civic campaign spotlighting
what Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have called the “success sequence,” where young adults are encouraged to pursue education, work, marriage and parenthood in that order. Such a statewide campaign could mimic the nation's successful campaign to prevent teen pregnancy, which helped drive the teen pregnancy rate in America down by more than 50 percent since 1990.

Steps like these could go a long way toward strengthening Sooner families and boosting the flagging fortunes of the Oklahoma economy.

Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. The Family Policy Institute of Oklahoma is hosting Wilcox on Tuesday, Feb. 9, to present his findings at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. at MetroTech, 1900 Springlake Drive in Oklahoma City. For more information visit: www.okfamily.org/events.

Article originally appeared in the Oklahoman http://newsok.com/article/5477619