Institute for American Values

The Institute for American Values (IAV) is a private nonprofit foundation “that contributes intellectually to strengthening families and civil society in the U.S. and the world.”

IAV promotes the traditional family as a vital key to individual well-being. It holds that high rates of divorce and unwed childbearing undermine the fabric of family life, causing social problems such as domestic abuse, crime, suicide, and poverty.

Under the leadership of founding president David Blankenhorn, IAV produces research highlighting the challenges confronting today’s U.S. families. Through books and studies, the Institute’s analysts bring this information to the attention of the media and other opinion makers.

IAV also works with elected officials to advance proposals that help families stay together. These include making divorce laws stricter, providing financial assistance to low-income families, and reforming the tax code to assist married couples.

Founded in 1987, the New York City-based IAV employs a staff of 11 and reports a budget of about $1.5 million. Its funding comes from foundations, corporations and individual donations.

Documenting the emotional toll of divorce

IAV argues that children are especially harmed by the breakup of the two-parent family. In the September 2009 issue of National Affairs, IAV senior fellow Brad Wilcox wrote that “children who are exposed to divorce are two to three times more likely than their peers in intact marriages to suffer from serious social or psychological pathologies.” He notes that:

  • 31 percent of adolescents with divorced parents dropped out of high school, compared to 13 percent of children from intact families;
  • 33 percent of adolescent girls whose parents divorced became teen mothers, compared to 11 percent of girls from continuously married families; and
  • 11 percent of boys from divorced families spend time in prison before the age of 32, compared to 5 percent of boys from intact homes.

Divorce also exacts a toll on adults. In September 2005, IAV released the second edition of its report, Why Marriage Matters: 26 Conclusions from the Social Sciences. Issued by a politically diverse group of 16 family scholars, the report concludes that marriage is an “important public good” that provides economic, health and safety benefits to children and adults alike. For example:

  • married people have longer life expectancies than singles;
  • married mothers have lower rates of depression than single or cohabitating mothers;
  • between one-fifth and one-third of divorcing women end up in poverty as a result of divorce;
  • single and divorced women are four to five times more likely to be victims of violent crime in any given year than married women.

Documenting the economic toll of divorce

In 2008, IAV released a report called The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing. It estimated that the breakdown of marriage costs taxpayers $112 billion every year, due to expenses associated with health care, criminal justice, welfare and lost income-tax revenues.

IAV calculates that family fragmentation is responsible for $28 billion in Medicaid expenses, $9.6 billion in Food Stamps, and $7.3 billion in housing assistance.

Blankenhorn explained at the time that “divorce and unwed childbearing – besides being bad for children – are also costing taxpayers a ton of money.” He estimated that just a one-percent reduction in the rate of “fragmented families” would save $1 billion per year.

Measuring marital health

In October 2009, IAV and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting (NCAAMP) issued an Index of Leading Marriage Indicators, the first project that tracks the health of marriage in America. The Marriage Index was officially released at a two-day conference at Virginia’s Hampton University attended by CNN analyst Roland Martin, former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, and retired Washington Post columnist William Raspberry.

The Marriage Index seeks to quantify marital health in the same way economists use leading indicators to evaluate the economy. “The idea is for it to become as normal and customary to talk about the Marriage Index as it is for the leading economic indicators,” said Blankenhorn at the launch event.

The Marriage Index is based on five indicators to arrive at a composite score:

  • the percentage of married adults, ages 20 to 54;
  • the percentage of married persons who are very happy with their marriage;
  • the percentage of intact first marriages;
  • the percentage of births to married parents; and
  • the percentage of children living with their own married parents.

From a composite score of 76.2 in 1970, the Marriage Index fell to 60.3 in 2008. Contributing to the decline is a drop in the percentage of births to married parents, which plummeted from nearly 90 percent to just 60 percent during those 38 years.

Ending the welfare “marriage penalty”

IAV argues that the federal government unfairly penalizes married, low-income adults by cutting off their access to government benefits.

Single adults who are eligible for food stamps, child-care subsidies, Medicaid and welfare often lose those benefits when they marry and their household suddenly includes two paychecks. In many cases, the lost assistance is worth more than the increased income that caused a family to lose its eligibility.

IAV believes that this has the perverse effect of discouraging low-income people from marrying.

In a May 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed, U.S. Senator Sam Brownback and IAV’s David Blankenhorn wrote: “[W]hen we penalize poor couples for getting married, we are giving them a strong incentive not to take advantage of an institution that would likely help them lift themselves out of poverty.”

They advocate allowing married couples to continue receiving all of their benefits for the first three years of marriage, giving them enough time to realize the economic benefits of marriage before their government benefits end.

Reforms to improve marriage

IAV advocates a broad range of reforms to strengthen marriage as a legal and cultural institution:

  • work with state legislators to reduce unnecessary divorce, primarily by combining longer waiting periods with stronger provisions for marriage education;
  • create a one- or two-year waiting period for unilateral divorce;
  • create social security and other tax benefits for a parent who wants to stay at home and care for young children:
  • work with Congress to win passage of legislation increasing federal funding for marriage education; and
  • promote education for successful marriage as a regular part of school curricula.