The State of Marriage in Wisconsin


April 2013, Vol. 26, No. 6

By Christian Schneider

The issue of marriage is constantly in the news. Yet most modern debate is over what actually constitutes a marriage. States are now debating which groups are eligible to tie the knot, rather than worrying about those groups that aren’t interested in it anymore.

The latter group should be of greater concern to society and therefore more newsworthy.

Marriage, once a bedrock of American society, has simply become a lifestyle choice, not a moral imperative. Fewer women see childbirth and marriage as necessary companions, a fact that has significantly altered the nature of social capital in America.

In 2012, for the first time in America’s history, the majority of babies born to women under 30 years old had unmarried mothers. Forty-one percent of all children in America are now born into single-parent homes.

Certainly, there are societal costs to the fact that more children are growing up in single-parent homes. Children with one parent face greater risk of poverty, mental illness, infant mortality, physical illness, juvenile delinquency, sexual abuse, substance abuse and decreased academic performance.

These societal costs are substantial. But they also translate into an actual economic cost to taxpayers. The more children who are raised in single-parent homes, the more need there is for taxpayer-subsidized services such as law enforcement, health services, teachers trained to deal with specialized emotional disorders, etc.

Wisconsin has not dodged the single-parent phenomenon. One 2008 study ranked Wisconsin 16th-highest in the nation for costs associated with “family fragmentation,” estimating that the state’s taxpayers pay $737 million annually in costs stemming from single parenthood. The study examined the increased costs to taxpayers in terms of the justice system, federal poverty aid, health care and child welfare.

This is because over the course of decades, Wisconsin has seen single-parent births skyrocket, marriages decline and divorces increase (although the rate has been constant recently). If the state could manage only a 1% drop in family fragmentation, it could save $7.4 million per year in state and local taxes.

Other states have allocated funds, often federal grants, to promote marriage in order to lessen the number of births to single women. Perhaps the most creative state in dealing with the problem of single parenthood has been Texas, which gives couples a $60 credit toward their marriage license if they take an eight-hour family strengthening course prior to getting married.

Texas appropriated $15 million for its Texas Twogether program, which was modeled after a similar initiative in Minnesota that passed in 2001; a comparable program in Wisconsin would cost between $1.8 million and $3.3 million, depending on the amount of the credit. Given the costs of single parenthood to taxpayers, such a program would pay for itself if it helped reduce unwed births by only 0.4%.

This study analyzes the economic effect of single parenthood on Wisconsin and makes recommendations for programs that would encourage individuals to have children within the marriage framework. The report will attempt to put a figure on potential taxpayer savings if Wisconsin can succeed in encouraging more parents to have children while married.

Read the full report here.