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Family Structure


[Note: Text that references rankings, charts, and data will be updated as work progresses on the 2020 Family Prosperity Index.]


The composition of families—specifically, the number of children in a family and, in particular, the marital state of the parents—has a direct and distinct influence on their own economic circumstances as well as on those of the communities in which they live. The Family Structure major index measures the impact of these factors—especially marriage—on prosperity.


Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council at the White House, has laid out the case for marriage:


Economists should spend more time thinking about marriage. Much of the reduction in economic growth is coming from an increase in poverty which is caused by family breakup. Married families make more income, build more long-term wealth and are happier. … I suggest the following: make sure that kids finish school; get a job … get married and then you have the kid. We’re doing it backwards. … The rise of the poverty class is so tightly linked to the rise of divorce and out-of-wedlock births. Not everything is an economic problem. There are some problems that are social and cultural.  [1]


The formation of families through marriage and the dissolution of families through divorce impact the individuals involved in a number of ways, including the ways Kudlow described. And if you compare two men with similar backgrounds, the married man will, on average, enjoy a marriage premium in his earnings. In fact, a comprehensive study by economist Robert Lerman and sociologist Brad Wilcox calculated this earning premium at a whopping $15,900 per year![2]


The economic benefits of marriage extend beyond men, as Lerman and Wilcox state:

Young men and women from intact families enjoy an annual ‘intact family premium’ that amounts to $6,500 and $4,700, respectively, over the incomes of their peers from single-parent families.


Men and women who are currently married and were raised in an intact family enjoy an annual ‘family premium’ in their household income that exceeds that of their unmarried peers who were raised in non-intact families by at least $42,000.


. . . [T]he growth in median income of families with children would be 44 percent higher if the United States enjoyed the 1980 levels of married parenthood today. Further, at least 32 percent of the growth in family-income inequality since 1979 among families with children and 37 percent of the decline in men’s employment rates during that time can be linked to the decreasing number of Americans who form and maintain stable, married families.


One area of growing concern is that a decline in the marriage rate is leading to fewer men being in the workforce. It is no coincidence that the decline in men’s labor force participation parallels the decline in marriage rates. In fact, the drop in workforce participation has been so severe and prolonged that there is a growing worry it could plunge America into an economic depression.[3]


Less tangible than the financial impact of marriage, but no less important, is its link with increased happiness. According to a recent study by economists Shawn Grover and John Helliwell:


First, even when controlling for pre-marital life satisfaction levels, those who marry are more satisfied than those who remain single. Second, contrary to past papers claiming full adaptation, the benefits of marriage persist in the long-term, even if the well-being benefits are greatest immediately after marriage. Third, marriage seems to be the most important in middle age when people of every marital status experience a dip in well-being. This result seems to be applicable globally, even in regions of the world where the average effects of marriage are not positive. Fourth, those who are best friends with their partners have the largest well-being benefits from marriage and cohabitation, even when controlling for pre-marital well-being levels. The well-being benefits of marriage are on average about twice as large for those (about half of the sample) whose spouse is also their best friend.[4]


Fortunately, past trends need not predict future results. Americans still remain optimistic about their prospects for marriage, as indicated by a recent survey of 15,738 adults:


In the end, America still likes marriage—however defined—though perhaps not as universally as in the past and a little bit later in the life course.[5]


On the other hand, divorce works to undo the economic benefits of marriage. In fact, a recent study by economist Ben Scafidi found that divorce is a major cause of poverty. In turn, divorce drives up government costs associated with the social safety net, such as spending on food stamps, TANF, Medicaid, and WIC. Family fragmentation due to divorce costs American taxpayers (at the federal and state levels) at least $112 billion every year.[6]


Additionally, divorce eradicates the marriage premium cited previously, especially for men. A recent study quantified this impact:


The divorce revolution has undermined growth in the U.S. economy. As this analysis proves, marriage is a stable, assured causal agent of economic growth. Since marriage has this ‘remarkably large’ accruing effect on worker’s productivity, divorce eliminates this agent for growth.


The divorce revolution more than tripled the rate of divorce for the most important agent for economic growth and labor market activity: the working head-of-household. Divorce reduced the head’s productivity increases by one fourth to one third. Divorce, having become acculturated, perpetually inhibits growth of the U.S. economy.


Besides for population effects originating in the 1960s and 1972, there are no other consequences of policy change that have had a greater effect in slowing economic growth than the divorce revolution.[7]


Just as marriage boosts happiness, divorce reduces a person’s well-being. An analysis by Gallup discovered that divorced women suffer under significantly elevated levels of stress and, consequently, drug use after a divorce.[8]


Of all the measurements that might be taken of marriage and divorce, the most important one is the proportion of children who live in married households. This is critical to the well-being of children. In fact, according to a recent study by David Ribar:


My analysis [of why marriage matters for child well-being] includes many mechanisms that have been investigated in previous studies, including economic resources, specialization, father involvement, parent’s physical and mental health, parenting quality and skills, social supports, health insurance, home ownership, parental relationships, bargaining power, and family stability. However, it also points to many others that have received less attention, including net wealth, borrowing constraints, informal insurance through social networks, and inefficiencies associated with parents living apart . . . [T]he likely advantages of marriage for children’s wellbeing are hard to replicate through policy interventions other than those that bolster marriage themselves. While interventions that raise income, increase parental time availability, provide alternative services, or provide other in-kind resources would surely benefit children, these are likely to be, at best, only partial substitutes for marriage itself. The advantages of marriage for children appear to be the sum of many, many parts.[9]


Measured more specifically, the increase in the number of families in poverty can be directly attributed to the breakdown of the family.[10] In 2016, the poverty rate for families with related children was 16 percent nationally. For married couples with children, the poverty rate was only 7 percent, but for single parents, the poverty rate was 32 percent.


Federal income tax data reveal why increasing the level of overall family prosperity is so important.


First, the percent of taxpayers filing as married increases significantly with income. In 2015, married taxpayers represented 36.2 percent of all taxpayers, but among those earning over $100,000, they represent 81.3 percent.


Second, the size of households increases significantly with income. In 2015, for all taxpayers, the number of exemptions (people) per taxpayer (household) was 1.94, but for taxpayers earning over $100,000, the number jumped to 2.73.[11]


There is some room for optimism. Research suggests that the negative economic ramifications of family fragmentation can be reversed. As Lerman and Wilcox found:


[O]ur results suggest that men and women can overcome many of the disadvantages associated with being raised in a non-intact family by establishing a married family of their own.[12]


As shown in Chart 44 and Table 5:


Percent of Children in Married Couple Households


The percent of children in married couple households (as a percent of all households) declined nationally by 5 percent from 69.7 percent in 2000 to 66.6 percent in 2016 (Chart 45). In 2016, Utah had the highest level at 82 percent, while Mississippi had the lowest level at 56.5 percent—or 69 percent of the Utah rate.[13]


Utah had the top score (10.00) on the percent of children in married couple households sub-index, followed by Montana (8.92), Washington (7.75), North Dakota (7.75), and Colorado (7.74). Louisiana had the lowest score (1.88). Other low-scoring states included Mississippi (2.10), Georgia (2.95), Florida (2.96), and New Mexico (2.98).


Marriage Rate


The marriage rate (the number of weddings that occur in a year divided by the population) declined nationally by 16 percent from 0.82 percent in 2000 to 0.69 percent in 2015 (Chart 46). In 2015, Arkansas had the highest rate at 1.04 percent, while Connecticut had the lowest marriage rate at 0.55 percent—or 53 percent of the Arkansas rate.[14]


Arkansas had the top score (10.00) for the marriage rate sub-index, followed by Florida (9.27), Tennessee (9.20), Vermont (8.42), and Idaho (8.33). Connecticut had the lowest score (1.04). Other low-scoring states included Massachusetts (1.77), Minnesota (1.96), New Mexico (2.28), and Wisconsin (2.35).


Note: Hawaii and Nevada have very high marriage rates because so many out-of-state residents get married in those states. The FPI adjusts for this distortion by setting the marriage rate for Hawaii and Nevada equal to the national average. The remaining marriages are assumed to be out-of-state residents and are allocated to the other 48 states based on their proportion of total marriages for those 48 states.


Divorce Rate


The divorce rate (the number of divorces that occur in a year divided by the population) declined nationally by 22 percent from 0.40 percent in 2000 to 0.32 percent in 2015 (Chart 47). In 2015, Indiana had the highest divorce rate at 0.52 percent, while Iowa had the lowest rate at 0.12 percent—or 23 percent of the Indiana rate.[15]


Iowa had the top score for the divorce rate sub-index (10.00), followed by Illinois (7.51), Georgia (6.77), Texas (6.74), and South Dakota (6.63). Indiana had the lowest score (0.75). Other low-scoring states (with few divorces) included Arkansas (1.46), Nevada (2.18), Oklahoma (2.73), and Wyoming (3.14).

Note: Unfortunately, several states no longer submit their divorce data to the National Vital Statistics System, including: California, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, and Minnesota. Divorce data for California, Indiana, and Minnesota (partial) were gathered directly from reports published by the judicial system. Georgia, Hawaii, and Minnesota all had partial time-series; the missing data from these states was extrapolated based on the growth rate of the other states with reported values.


Additionally, two states have intermittently submitted their divorce data, Louisiana and Oklahoma, and their missing values were interpolated. To aid in the interpolations, the FPI used data for the year 2000 that was published by National Center for Family and Marriage Research.[16]


State of Households


Charts 48 through 51 show the variance in the different measures used in the state of household sub-index— such as percent of married households and average household size—nationally and in the 50 states from 2000 to 2015.[17]


The percent of married taxpayers (as a percent of all taxpayers) declined nationally by 7 percent from 39.1 percent in 2000 to 36.2 percent in 2015 (Chart 48). In 2015, Idaho had the highest percentage of married taxpayers at 45.8 percent, while New York had the lowest percentage at 31 percent—or 68 percent of the Idaho rate.


The percent of married taxpayers earning over $100,000 (as a percent of all taxpayers earning over $100,000) declined nationally by 5 percent from 85.2 percent in 2000 to 81.3 percent in 2015 (Chart 49). In 2015, Utah had the highest rate 89.9 percent, while New York had the lowest rate at 71.2 percent—or 79 percent of the Utah rate.


The number of exemptions per taxpayer declined nationally by 4 percent from 2.03 in 2000 to 1.94 in 2015 (Chart 50). In 2015, Utah had the highest number of exemptions per taxpayer at 2.26, while Vermont had the lowest number at 1.74—or 77 percent of Utah’s amount.


The number of exemptions per taxpayer earning over $100,000 declined nationally by 4 percent from 2.85 in 2000 to 2.73 in 2015 (Chart 51). In 2015, Utah had the highest number of exemptions per taxpayer earning over $100,000 at 3.31, while Florida had the lowest number at 2.55—or 77 percent of Utah’s amount.


Utah had the top score for the state of households sub-index (9.44), followed by Idaho (8.86), Wyoming (7.37), Nebraska (7.05), and Kansas (6.96). New York had the lowest score (1.16). Other low-scoring states included Rhode Island (1.78), Maryland (2.66), Massachusetts (2.70), and Vermont (3.23).


Note: Married taxpayers, married taxpayers earning over $100,000, exemptions per taxpayer, and exemptions per taxpayer earning over $100,000 were weighted equally in the state of households sub-index.


Percent of Families with Related Children Below Poverty


The percent of families with related children and living below the poverty line (as a percent of all families) increased nationally by 14 percent from 14 percent in 2000 to 15.9 percent in 2016 (Chart 52). New Mexico had the highest poverty rate in 2016 at 26.1 percent, while New Hampshire had the lowest  rate at 7.1 percent—or 27 percent of the New Mexico rate.[18]


New Hampshire had the top score for the percent of families with related children and living below the poverty sub-index (9.27), followed by Hawaii (8.33), Wyoming (8.17), Minnesota (7.38), and Utah (7.32). New Mexico had the lowest score (0.00). Other low-scoring states included Mississippi (0.90), Louisiana (1.19), West Virginia (2.02), and Kentucky (2.22).


[1]      Kudlow, Larry. Panel presentation at 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).


[2]      Lerman, Robert I. and Wilcox, W. Bradford, “For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America,” American Enterprise Institute and Institute for Family Studies, October 2014. https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/IFS-ForRicherForPoorer-Final_Web.pdf


[3]      Fagan, Patrick and Potrykus, Henry, “Non-Marriage Reduces U.S. Labor Participation: The Abandonment of Marriage Puts America at Risk of a Depression,” Marriage & Religion Research Institute, August 27, 2012. http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF12H57.pdf


[4]      Grover, Shawn and Helliwell, John F., “How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 20794, December 2014.


[5]      Gordon, David; Porter, Austin; Regnerus, Mark; Ryngaert, Jane; and Sarangaya, Larissa, “Relationships in America Survey,” The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, December 2014. http://relationshipsinamerica.com/pdf/Relationships%20in%20America%202014.pdf


[6]      Scafidi, Benjamin, “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States,” Institute for American Values, Georgia Family Council, Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, and Families Northwest, 2008. http://americanvalues.org/catalog/pdfs/COFF.pdf


[7]      Fagan, Patrick and Potrykus, Henry, “The Divorce Revolution Perpetually Reduces U.S. Economic Growth: Divorce Removes a Fourth of Head-of-Household Productivity Growth,” Marriage & Religion Research Institute, March 8, 2012. http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF12C20.pdf


[8]      Sharpe, Lindsey and Witters, Dan, “Women’s Well-Being Suffers More When Marriage Ends,” Gallup, October 15, 2014. http://www.gallup.com/poll/178553/women-suffers-marriage-ends.aspx


[9]      Ribar, David C., “Why Marriage Matters for Child Wellbeing,” The Future of Children, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall 2015


[10]     Wilcox, W. Bradford, “The Evolution of Divorce,” National Affairs, Fall 2009. http://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-evolution-of-divorce


[11]     For more information, see: Hodge, Scott, “Putting a Face on America’s Tax Returns: A Chart Book,” Tax Foundation, 2013. http://taxfoundation.org/sites/taxfoundation.org/files/docs/PuttingAFace2013.pdf


[12]     Lerman, Robert I. and Wilcox, W. Bradford, “For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America,” American Enterprise Institute and Institute for Family Studies, October 2014. https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/IFS-ForRicherForPoorer-Final_Web.pdf


[13]     U.S. Department of Commerce: Census Bureau. The data was extracted from the Kids Count Data Center published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. http://www.datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/105-child-population-by-household-type?loc=1&loct=2#detailed/2/2-52/false/36,868,867,133,38/4290,4291,4292/427,428


[14]     U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System. Data obtained via email request. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/mardiv.htm


[15]     Ibid.


[16]     Glass, Jennifer and LevChak, Philip, “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding Regional Variations in Divorce Rates,” National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University. https://www.bgsu.edu/ncfmr/resources/data/original-data/county-level-marriage-divorce-data-2000.html


[17]     Internal Revenue Service, Statistics of Income, SOI Tax Stats – Historic Table 2. https://www.irs.gov/uac/SOI-Tax-Stats-Historic-Table-2


[18]     U.S. Department of Commerce: Census Bureau. The data was extracted from the Kids Count Data Center published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. http://www.datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/55-families-with-related-children-that-are-below-poverty-by-family-type