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The Issue

Marriage and family are the building blocks of all human civilization and the primary institutions of civil society. Intact married families are a guarantor of individual liberty, the building block of a strong and stable American culture, and the first engine of economic growth. Preserving the institution of marriage by restoring and protecting its fundamental definition is integral to the flourishing of our children and families and for promoting a healthy civil society.

Mothers and fathers are neither interchangeable nor dispensable and every child deserves a married mom and dad. Strong marriages and intact families serve the ends of limited government more effectively, less intrusively, and at less cost than picking up the pieces of a shattered marriage culture. Government steps in more when it is compelled to provide (whether more or less directly) for the welfare of those who are affected by the collapse of marriage and family.

Laws and regulations should continue to protect and promote intact married family life as the basis of a stable and prosperous society. Now that the Supreme Court has mandated all 50 states to redefine marriage, policymakers should protect the freedom of those who still believe the truth of marriage: that it is the union of a man and a woman.


Understand and Promote the Many Benefits of Marriage. Married men and women tend to have better financial health, increased savings, and greater social mobility than unmarried individuals. Children raised in families headed by a married couple have a greater chance of experiencing economic stability, high academic performance, and emotional maturity. Teens from intact married families are less likely to be sexually active and also less likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol, exhibit poor social behaviors, or participate in violent crimes. Consistent parental involvement, especially from fathers, is also related to decreased likelihood of teen pregnancy.

Given the positive influence of marriage on significant indicators of individual well-being—from employment and earnings to avoidance of delinquency, school dropout, and abuse—public policy should promote, rather than undermine, the institution of marriage.

Promote Marriage as America’s Greatest Antidote Against Child Poverty. Today, more than four in 10 children are born outside marriage. These children are five times more likely to experience poverty than are children born and raised by a married mother and a father in the home. Moreover, children raised outside a biological family arrangement are at greater risk of lower educational attainment, elevated rates of delinquency, more non-marital pregnancy and childbearing, and other consequences.

Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent. Of the nearly $450 billion in annual federal and state welfare funding spent on low-income families, three-quarters goes to those led by single parents. The restoration of marriage in low-income communities requires educating young men and women on the importance of marriage in reducing poverty and improving children’s well-being.

Eliminate Marriage Penalties in Federal Law. Government assistance programs that create disincentives to marriage can have unintended, harmful consequences. Any form of financial penalty in tax policy that masks or subverts the benefits of marriage—thus acting as a deterrent—should be eliminated. For instance, the structure of health care tax credits under Obamacare will mean that married couples generally receive $1,500 to $10,000 less per year in health care premium support than cohabitating couples with the same combined income.

Likewise, the incentive structure of many welfare programs discourages single mothers from marrying the employed fathers of their children. Discouraging men and women from enjoying the financial and emotional supports of marriage in order to continue receiving public assistance harms adults and their children, who are more likely to continue the cycle of poverty for another generation. Policymakers should eliminate the penalties for marriage in the tax code, welfare programs, and Obamacare.

Work to Restore the Constitutional Authority of Citizens and Their Elected Officials to Make Marriage Policy that Reflects the Truth About Marriage. Marriage brings a man and a woman together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces. The institution is based on the anthropological truth that men and women are distinct and complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the social reality that children deserve a mother and a father. Government recognizes marriage because it is society’s most efficient and effective means of ensuring the well-being of children. State recognition of marriage protects children by encouraging men and women to commit to each other and take responsibility for their children. The overwhelming conclusion of social science studies over decades is that children tend to have better outcomes when raised by a married mother and father.

The Supreme Court’s mandate that all 50 states redefine marriage has further distanced marriage from the needs of children and has denied, as a matter of policy, the ideal that a child needs both a mother and a father. There is nothing in the Constitution that required the redefinition of marriage in all 50 states. Policymakers should work to promote policy that protects those who still believe the truth about marriage. The First Amendment Defense Act and similar state policies are a good place to start. These prevent the government from discriminating against any person or group in regard to contracts, grants, licensing, accreditation, or the award or maintenance of tax-exempt status, simply because they speak or act on the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage.

Facts and Figures

  • In 1964, only 7 percent of births in America were outside marriage. Today, this number has climbed to more than 40 percent.
  • Over the past six decades, the percentage of married adults has declined steadily among all Americans. The decline has occurred more rapidly among African American adults, less than 40 percent of whom are married.
  • Fathers’ involvement is an important factor in children’s well-being, from health and behavioral outcomes to school performance. Research shows that religious participation appears to bolster fathers’ involvement.
  • Adolescents who do not live in intact families are more likely to engage in substance abuse, exhibit behavioral problems, have poor academic performance, and engage in risky behavior, including becoming sexually active at an early age.

Selected Additional Resources

Ryan T. Anderson, “In-Depth: 4 Harms the Court’s Marriage Ruling Will Cause,” The Daily Signal, June 30, 2015.

Ryan T. Anderson, “Marriage, Reason, and Religious Liberty: Much Ado About Sex, Nothing to Do with Race,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2894, April 4, 2014.

Ryan T. Anderson, “Marriage: What It Is, Why It Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining It,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2775, March 11, 2013.

Ryan T. Anderson, “The Social Costs of Abandoning the Meaning of Marriage,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4038, September 9, 2013.

Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2015).

Charles A. Donovan, “A Marshall Plan for Marriage: Rebuilding Our Shattered Homes,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2567, June 7, 2011.

Charles A. Donovan, “Obamacare: Impact on the Family,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2857, April 12, 2010.

Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter Books, 2012).

The Heritage Foundation, “Parents’ Influence on Adolescents’ Sexual Behavior,” Heritage Foundation Family Facts Brief No. 42, 2011.

Robert Rector, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2465, September 16, 2012.

Robert Rector, “The New Federal Wedding Tax: How Obamacare Would Dramatically Penalize Marriage,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2767, January 20, 2010.

Gene Schaerr and Ryan T. Anderson, “Memo to Supreme Court: State Marriage Laws Are Constitutional,” Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum No. 148, March 10, 2015.

What You Need to Know About Marriage: Questions & Answers Driving the Debate,” The Heritage Foundation, co-published with Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and National Organization for Marriage, 2015.