institution that most strongly protects mothers and children from
domestic abuse and violent crime is marriage. Analysis of ten years
worth of findings from the National Crime Victimization Survey
(NCVS), which the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has conducted
since 1973, demonstrates that mothers who are or ever have been
married are far less likely to suffer from violent crime than are
mothers who never marry.
Specifically, data from the NCVS survey
- Married women
with children suffer far less abuse than single mothers.
In fact, the rate of spousal, boyfriend, or domestic partner abuse
is twice as high among mothers who have never been married as it is
among mothers who have ever married (including those separated or
- Married women
with children are far less likely to suffer from violent crime in
general or at the hands of intimate acquaintances or
strangers. Mothers who have never married--including those
who are single and living either alone or with a boyfriend and
those who are cohabiting with their child's father--are more than
twice as likely to be victims of violent crime than are mothers who
have ever married.
Other social science surveys demonstrate
that marriage is the safest place for children as well. For
- Children of
divorced or never-married mothers are six to 30 times more likely
to suffer from serious child abuse than are children
raised by both biological parents in marriage.
Without question, marriage is the safest
place for a mother and her children to live, both at home and in
the larger community. Nevertheless, current government policy is
either indifferent to or actively hostile to the institution of
marriage. The welfare system, for example, can penalize low-income
parents who decide to marry. Such hostility toward marriage is poor
public policy; government instead should foster healthy and
enduring marriages, which would have many benefits for mothers and
children, including reducing domestic violence.
Violence Against Mothers
DOJ's National Crime Victimization Survey collects data on
victimization through an ongoing survey of a nationally
representative sample of Americans. The survey defines violent
crime as rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and
simple assault. Domestic or intimate abuse is defined as violent
crimes performed by a spouse, former spouse, boyfriend, or former
years of NCVS data (from 1992 to 2001) reveal interesting patterns
among mothers (ages 20-50) with children under the age of 12. Specifically:
Never-married mothers experience more
domestic abuse. Among those who have ever married (those married,
divorced, or separated), the annual rate of domestic violence is
12.9 per 1,000 mothers. Among mothers who have never married, the
annual domestic violence rate is 26.3 per 1,000.
Thus, never-married mothers suffer domestic violence at more than
twice the rate of mothers who have been or currently are married.
(See Chart 1).
- Never-married mothers suffer more violent
crime. The NCVS provides data on total violent crime against
mothers with children under the age of 12. Total violent crime
covers rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and
simple assault committed against the mother by any party. Total
violent crime covers violence against mothers by former and current
spouses and boyfriends as well as by relatives, acquaintances, and
As Chart 2 shows, ever-married mothers with children suffer from
overall violent crime at an annual rate of 38.5 crimes per 1,000
mothers. Never-married mothers with children, by contrast, suffer
81.0 violent crimes per 1,000 mothers.
Thus, never-married mothers experience
violent crime at more than twice the rate of ever-married mothers.
Based on these data, the institution of marriage best shelters
mothers from the specter of violence.
- These differences in crime rates across
married versus single mothers are statistically significant.
Violence Against Children
Rates of victimization of children vary
significantly by family structure, and the evidence shows that the
married intact family is by far the safest place for children. (See Chart 3.)
Although the United States has yet to develop the capacity to
measure child abuse by family structure, British data on child
abuse are available. These data show that rates of serious abuse of
children are lowest in the intact married family but six times
higher in the step family, 14 times higher in the
always-single-mother family, 20 times higher in
cohabiting-biological parent families, and 33 times higher when the
mother is cohabiting with a boyfriend who is not the father of her
an abused child dies (see Chart 4), the relationship between family
structure and abuse gets stronger: It is lowest in intact
always-married families, three times higher in the step family,
nine times higher in the always-single-mother family, 18 times
higher in the cohabiting-biological parents family, and 73 times
higher in families where the mother cohabits with a boyfriend.
What Policymakers Should Do
legislation and social policy, the government should not penalize
parents for marrying. Given the rising evidence that non-married
mothers and their children are at greater risk of violent crime and
abuse, government policy should not encourage--either directly or
in unintended ways--single motherhood and cohabitation.
that is what is being done in many of America's means-tested
welfare programs. Because mothers and children are safest from harm
within a married family, policymakers should begin the work of
implementing policies to reduce the bias against marriage in
welfare programs and to strengthen marriage as the primary
institution for raising children.
Members of Congress should support
President Bush's proposal to spend $300 million per year on efforts
to rebuild marriage among the poor. It is the first serious
proposal in this regard ever to come before Congress. His
suggestions, if adopted into law, would begin the necessary work to
reconstruct the institution of marriage, which failed welfare
policies of the past have undermined. Now that the first stage of
welfare reform--rebuilding an ethic of work--is well underway,
Congress should support the President as he focuses on the second
important stage: rebuilding a culture of marriage in American
Members of Congress should begin to reduce
and eventually eliminate the penalty against marriage in most
means-tested welfare programs. For example, they could issue a
joint resolution indicating their intent to achieve this goal. Then
they could request that the Department of Health and Human Services
submit a list of options that would be good candidates for this
establishing programs to help those who need assistance, the
question before Congress should not simply be whether or not to
fund a program, but how much its policies would improve the
well-being of adults and children. Social science data clearly show
that mothers and children are safest and thrive best in a married
family. It is time for the government to adopt policies that
reflect this knowledge and rebuild, rather than undermine, the
institution of marriage.
Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy, Patrick F. Fagan
is William H. G. FitzGerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural
Issues, and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., is
Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis, at The