“We found that this change was not due to demographic or socioeconomic differences between married and unmarried mothers or to the increase in cohabitation,” Torche said.

This conclusion was further supported by results from two additional analyses the researchers performed: First, they looked at births by marital status and infant health across regions of Chile. In the second, they studied health outcomes among siblings whose mother was unmarried when delivering one child and married when delivering another.

The three analyses were designed to complement one another. “There is always a risk that there are differences between women who marry before having children and those who do not that we cannot observe in the data,” Torche said. The birth certificate data that Torche and Abufhele relied on didn’t have information on, for example, differences in personality or health conditions that might explain why the marriage premium disappeared over time. By analyzing siblings of the same mother born under different marital statuses, the authors ruled out these and other unmeasured characteristics.

The researchers found that, on all three measures, the results were similar: As views on marriage in Chile changed, newborns of unmarried mothers were on average as healthy as those of married women.

“By triangulating evidence of marital fertility and infant health over time, across place and within siblings, we offer consistent evidence that the prevalence of marriage in society also factors into the marriage premium,” Torche said.

According to Torche, the overall finding – that society at large can reinforce the marriage premium – is important for policymaking. Any group that is considered to be outside the norm, such as single parents or non-heterosexuals, may face stigmatization or even discrimination from family members, co-workers, neighbors and institutions. For unwed mothers, it can lead to higher levels of stress, which is known to harm fetal development, or feelings of shame that prevent them from seeking support. When that happens, the marriage premium gets reinforced.

“When creating and implementing social policies, we need to be careful that the non-normative characteristics or statuses of the people they are intended to help are not portrayed as a problem,” said Torche. “In addition to harming the individuals, it limits what policies can achieve.”

Media Contacts

Joy Leighton, School of Humanities and Sciences: joy.leighton@stanford.edu