Highlights from the Joint Economic Committee Hearing on Improving Family Stability for the Wellbeing of American Children

Last week, the Joint Economic Committee held a hearing in which experts discussed the state of the American Family, what has been going well, where improvements could be made, and generally how families factors into the well-being of children. The entire hearing is well-worth watching, but here are a few of the highlights I thought were most interesting and relevant to the broader discussion on economic mobility and human flourishing.

The hearing began with some opening comments from Chairman Mike Lee and Vice-Chair Don Beyer. Senator Lee emphasized the importance of the family and its status as the bedrock of associational life. He goes through some of the evidence on the ways in which stable two-parent families are beneficial for children but his view of the current state of the American family is fairly pessimistic. Senator Lee notes that in 1960, just 5 percent of children were born to unmarried mothers, but today it’s 40 percent. Furthermore, minority women and those without a college degree experience even higher rates of children being born outside of the traditional two-parent family structure. The importance of the family and its benefits for children lead Senator Lee to be briefly discuss some of the cultural changes that have caused the decline of the family, but also makes clear that government tax and welfare systems have also contributed to the decline.

In contrast, Representative Beyer, while agreeing that families are indeed crucially important, is much more optimistic about the state of the American family. He begins by touting the significant decline in rates of teen pregnancy and notes that although marriage rates have been in decline in recent years, so has the rate of divorce. Representative Beyer also discusses how economic changes have changed the traditional family model, with more people delaying marriage and fathers spending more time caring for children now than in previous generations. Fundamentally, Representative Beyer interprets the problems faced by American families as economic and offers a familiar set of policies to help “build their economic base,” such as minimum wage increases and expanding government programs.

After these framing comments, the committee heard from the following witnesses. Below are a few highlights from their testimony:

Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox, Director, National Marriage Project and Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia:

  • Dr. Wilcox begins by outlining some good news by observing that 1)”Divorce is down more than 30% since the height of the divorce revolution, in 1980, and seems to be headed lower. This means that the fabled statistic — that 1-in-2 marriages end in divorce — is no longer true.” And 2) “Less divorce and less nonmarital childbearing equal more children being raised in intact, married families. … Since 2014, the share of children being raised in intact, married family has climbed from 61.8% to 62.6%. Especially noteworthy here is that an uptick in children living in intact families has been strongest for black children and children born to disadvantaged mothers…”
  • However, Wilcox goes on to discuss the “family inequality” that is now dividing American families. He notes, “Single parenthood is about twice as high for children from families with less education and for black children, compared to children, respectively, from college-educated families and children from white and Asian families. He contends that such children are “doubly disadvantaged” because it leaves them “navigating life with fewer socioeconomic resources and an absent parent.”
  • This divide is important for many reasons that Wilcox discusses, including the fact that marriage is associated with a host of positive outcomes for children, including higher grade point averages, lower likelihood of disciplinary problems or suspension from school, and significantly lower likelihood of experiencing material poverty or economic instability.
  • He goes on to discuss the importance of married intact families at the community level, noting the work of Raj Chetty and Robert Sampson. Their findings suggest that neighborhoods with more two-parent families are much likely to foster upward economic mobility for poor children, are generally much safer, and are associated with lower rates of later incarceration for men.
  • Wilcox concludes by offering the following suggestions to strengthen marriage and the family:
  1. End marriage penalties in means tested programs
  2. Strengthen career and technical education opportunities
  3. Expand the child tax credit (paid monthly, but limited to children under 6 years old)
  4. Launch civic efforts to strengthen marriage

Read the full written testimony here.

Ms. Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow, Manhattan Institute and Contributing Editor, City Journal:

  • In her testimony, Ms. Hymowitz focuses on what she considers to be an underappreciated part of the story about American family life, the “Marriageable Men Problem.” She describes the problem as follows, “In short, despite women’s extraordinary gains over the past decades in educational achievement, income, and occupations, both sexes still expect husbands to earn at least as much as their wives do. Women who can’t find such men will choose not to marry. Judging from their behavior thus far, either they will become single mothers or not have children at all.”
  • Hymowitz contends, “The mass movement of American women into the workforce that began in the mid 20th century launched an extraordinary social revolution whose ripple effects we are still trying to fully understand.” She goes through a number of statics outlining how a much higher proportion of prime age women are in the workforce than in previous generations and are now becoming more educated than men, including at the highest levels.
  • Hymowitz is careful to note that there are still many problems and challenges facing women today, but, “Despite all of these impediments, the opportunities for American women to exercise their talents, to be financially independent, to leave an abusive marriage, to buy their own homes, and to build wealth are extraordinary and unprecedented.”
  • However, this success has not necessarily been replicated in the opportunities to find a desirable husband or partner with whom they may want to raise children. Hymowitz notes that “The problem is especially acute for our lower-skilled population. … In 1960, more than 90% of adult women over 35 had married. … As of 2015, 71 percent of college educated women were married; that was true for only 56% percent of less educated women, a difference of 14 percentage points. Surprisingly, the women who did not marry continued having children at a similar rate. … Today, 54% of moderately educated women and 66 % of those with a high school diploma or less are unmarried mothers.”
  • Hymowitz explains that, “The most common explanation for the decline of marriage and mother-father families at the lower end of the income ladder is the moribund economic fortunes of low skilled men. …there is little question that the economic fortunes of those men relative to women have worsened.”
  • Bringing the discussion back to marriage, Hymowitz reports that most men and women still prefer marriages where a husband earns at least as much or more than a wife. This creates a mismatch between what women might want and the men available, particularly for African-American women. Hymowitz continues, “A Pew survey confirmed that ‘[N]ever-married women place a high premium on finding a spouse with a steady job,’ the authors write. Yet the number of never-married employed men between 25 and 34 per 100 women plunged from 139 in 1960 to 91 in 2012, even though there are more men than women in that age group. The ratio for black men and women is considerably worse: there are only 51 employed young black men for every 100 young black women.”
  • Hymowitz concludes, “to ensure more children grow up in stable, two parent families, we have to focus our attention on young men, particularly less educated and minority men.” To do this, she offers three areas of attention:
  1. First, schools need to focus on their “boy problem” and ensure that boys are learning at the same rate and achieving the same educational benchmarks as girls.
  2. Second, she asserts that we need to increase “both the number and prestige of trade schools, apprenticeships, and career and technical training.”
  3. Third, is “a re-affirmation of the importance of fathers and male contributions to the household.” Here, Hymowitz concedes that this issue is less amenable to government policy.

Read the full written testimony here.

Dr. Betsey Stevenson, Professor of Economics and Public Policy, The Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan:

  • Dr. Stevenson highlights some of the ways in which the family and marriage has changed. One major change is the fact that, “at no other time in history, have so many people over the age of 60 been married.” Indeed, marriage is thriving among older Americans and Stevenson contends that this reflects the fact that marriage is still the ideal for most Americans.
  • Stevenson goes on to explain some of the factors that have caused these changes. One factor is an increase in life expectancy, which means that many women will be living for another 20 years after their children are fully grown and could lead to a greater need to think about how to combine paid work with motherhood and how that process will go throughout her life.
  • Stevenson notes that while postponed childbirth has largely accompanied postponed marriage, but that is not necessarily the case for less educated and lower-income women. “Many scholars have pointed to a bifurcation in families because women with less education and fewer options in the labor force are following a somewhat different pattern. Less educated women have postponed marriage but not childrearing and as a result have their children often prior to marrying, raising single children in much lower income households. While many people bemoan the lack of a second parent, research shows that the fundamental problem is one of income and socioeconomic stress.”
  • In her remarks, Stevenson also describes how these changes have resulted in a larger role for fathers, “Fathers today spend more time with their children, and are more actively engaged parents.”
  • Stevenson also concludes her testimony by offering a variety of policy solutions to help support American families:
  1. Make Solving Maternal Mortality a National Priority
  2. Enact Paid Family Leave
  3. Provide Access to Affordable High-Quality Early Childhood Education and Childcare
  4. Recognizing and Supporting Broader Kinship Relationships
  5. Increase Wages for Lower Earners (Expanding Child Tax Credit, Expanding EITC, Raising the Minimum Wage)

Read the full written testimony here.

Dr. Rashawn Ray, David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution

  • To begin his testimony, Dr. Ray describes how families are pooling resources to deal with “stagnant wages, rising housing costs, and rising healthcare costs.” This is also resulting in many families with extended family relatives living together, even if that’s not by choice.
  • Ray highlights that a couple of important trends in family life including the shift toward cohabitating households rather than married or traditionally understood single-parent households and that higher-income households were more likely to have the “traditional family arrangement” of the father working and the mother staying at home than lower-income households (Ray describes this as higher income households being able to play chess while others could only play checkers).
  • Ray also spent a significant amount of timing describing some of the racial differences in families, noting that compared to other racial groups black fathers were more likely to read to and bathe their children, black families were more likely to include grandparents in family activities, and Mexican families were more likely to live with extended families. Ray contends that such arrangements might be less cultural in nature and more like economic survival strategies.
  • Ultimately, Ray describes many of the problems faced by families as resource deficiencies and offers the following solutions:
  1. Passing a Living Wage
  2. Ensuring High-Quality Jobs with Family-Friendly Benefits
  3. Bringing Back Economic Opportunities to Cities that Have Grown Stagnant (this is particularly important for employment prospects of black men, many of whom live in such areas)
  4. Increase Access to Affordable Healthcare and Childcare
  • Ray concludes his testimony by recounting his own personal story and his mother’s path to provide him the opportunity for a good life and the need to implement policies to allow a similar pathway to success for others.

Read the full written testimony here.

After the formal testimonies, the witnesses were asked a variety of questions from the members of the committee. There was a lot of good discussion, but here are just a few notable highlights:

  • Question from Senator Lee: Dr. Wilcox explained his research with Dr. Wendy Wang that describes a disconnect between the lived family life of college educated Californian Adults (stable two-parent married families) and their public thoughts on the family (no moral objection to women having a child on their own, open to diverse family styles). Generally, Dr. Wilcox describes how American elites have largely publicly stepped away from embracing marriage, but recognize for themselves, their spouses, and their kids, that it’s typically the best way do things.
  • Question from Representative David Schweikert: Some interesting discussion on what marriage rates will look like among Millennials. Forecasting is difficult, but Dr. Stevenson points out that marriage rates may be similar, just start later. Some studies suggest that only 70 percent of Millennials will marry, down from 90 percent for previous generations (although Dr. Ray pointed out that even if there are fewer marriages, they may be more successful ones).
  • Question from Representative Beutler: Among some other noteworthy questions, there was an interesting back and forth about the minimum wage. A couple of the witnesses had mentioned how raising the minimum wage was an important way to boost wages for low-income families, particularly since a lack of resources contributed to the lack of access to childcare. But Rep. Beutler discussed how many childcare providers are becoming less economically viable as those minimum wages increase — often leading them to close and limiting options for families. Although the issue wasn’t resolved, the tradeoff was interesting to note.

Finally, for the Social Capitalists Podcast, Dr. Scott Winship, Director of the Social Capital Project at the Joint Economic Committee, continued the discussion by talking further with Ms. Kay Hymowitz and Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox.

Follow the Joint Economic Committee @JECRepublicans for more highlights and updates on future hearings and reports, and follow @ArchbridgeInst to stay up to date on all things economic and social mobility.

Ben Wilterdink is the Director of Programs at the Archbridge Institute.

Director of Programs Ben Wilterdink has written numerous articles, op-eds, and analyses for the Archbridge Institute in several different outlets, on topics ranging from occupational licensing to youth employment.