NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Economic life for average Americans and their families has increasingly been characterized by stagnant incomes, rising income inequality and uncertain job prospects. How much do changes in marriage and family stability affect this shifting economic landscape and the health of the American dream? A lot, argueW. Bradford Wilcox and Robert Lerman in their new American Enterprise Institute (AEI) report, "For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America."

The researchers explain how stable, two-parent homes are related to desirable societal achievements - such as completing high-school, high earnings, and positive work rates - for children and married adults. While there is a lot of teeth gnashing regarding the illusion of meritocracy in America and how much effect one's station at birth affects his ascendence, this research investigates the specifics of how exactly family structure and dynamics affect a person's economic outcome. 

According to the report's executive summary, there are five elements that most affect the relationship between family patterns and economic well-being in America:

1. The retreat from marriage - a trend that skews most prominently toward lower-income Americans - has a central role in the changing economic fortunes of American family life. The researchers estimate that the growth in median income of families with children would jump 44% higher if the United States today enjoyed the same levels of married parenthood it did in  1980. To boot, some 32% of the growth in family-income inequality since 1979 among families with children and 37% of the decline in men's employment rates can be attributed to the falling number of stably-married Americans with families. 

2. Growing up with both parents is conducive to a situation with more education, work, and income . The researchers suggest that young men and women from these so-called intact families enjoy an "intact-family premium" each year that amounts to $6,500 and $4,700, respectively, over the incomes of their peers from single-parent families.

3. Men do better when married, as the researchers point to a marriage premium, while women suffer no penalty in their own incomes for getting married. But it's also a joint effort: happily married men and women enjoy an appreciably higher family income in relationship to their peers of otherwise similar characteristics. Men get a major nuptial boost, enjoying a marriage premium of at least $15,900 per year in their individual income compared to their single peers.

4. Stability at home in turn leads to a more advanced education and in turn leads to higher odds a person will be a married adult, thus creating a self-fulfilling cycle of achievement. Of course, the education and marital status leads to a major income boost. Those who are married  now and raised in an intact family enjoy an annual "family premium" in household income that exceeds that of their unmarried peers who were raised in non-intact families by at least $42,000.

5. The advantages of growing up in an intact family and being married extend across the population. These economic advantages from family structure apply as much to blacks and Hispanics as they do to whites. For instance, black men enjoy a marriage premium of at least $12,500 in their individual income compared to their single peers. The advantages also apply, for the most part, to men and women who are less educated. For instance, men with a high-school degree or less enjoy a marriage premium of at least $17,000 compared to their single peers.

"We lay out a case that stronger families help to furnish the human capital that young adults need to acquire early in life to flourish," explained Wilcox, a Visiting Scholar at the AEI and the a co-author of the report. "They are more likely to do well in school. They are less likely to take detours in life such as having a child outside of marriage or - for a boy - being incarcerated before age 30."

Wilcox noted some of the cultural conditions and history that led to the current circumstance of many families being unstable today.

"Almost one out of two marriages end in divorce now," he said. "Part of that story is a shift during the '70s towards a more expressive individualism that is manifest in a lifestyle of 'what makes me feel good.' Simply put, pursuing the desires of the self rather than the family and the community."

Wilcox also claims that about a third of the growth in family inequality can be traced to the retreat from marriage, which also affects the labor participation of men.

"Married men work harder and work more hours," he observed. "We learned that they work 400 hours more per year - controlling for education etc. They also work more strategically when they are married i.e. they are not inclined to leave a job. Whereas a single guy would quit his job regardless of whether there was another one waiting for him."

Wilcox alleges that there are fewer men are in the labor force in part because fewer men are getting married. He postulated that if American men today married at 1980 levels there would be more men in the labor force. The report states: "37% 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."

If anything, the research indicates that the divide between economics and culture is not as sharp as it was once thought.

--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet