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MARRIAGE AND FAMILY INTERTWINED

It's cool the way Rachel and Ross are raising little Emma, isn't it? In the jolly, la-la world of "Friends," Rachel (the mom) and Ross (the dad) live together without benefit of marriage, so they can fuss over their cute newborn and still have time to drink coffee with friends, date other people, and do all the wacky things that have kept this show in television's No. 1 spot for reasons that defy any sane explanation.

Way cool. Especially since in the cliff-hanging season finale, Rachel finds herself falling in love with Joey, the one with a libido twice the size of his brain, while Ross is attracted to a woman who appears to be the only black ever to inhabit their hip corner of New York City.

And what of little Emma? Not to worry. These pop culture icons live a decidedly middle-class life -- a real feat, since they have no visible means of support -- and that more than makes up for the absence of a piece of paper legalizing the partnership of her parents. Or so we are led to believe.

The dangerous trend of decoupling marriage from child-rearing somehow has escaped middle-class attention. In the popular imagination, the worrying statistics about the negative outcomes of children raised by single parents -- that they are more likely to drop out of school, become teen parents and experience health, behavior and mental health problems -- are linked to poverty.

The kids do poorly because they are poor, the argument goes. It's not family structure; it's family income that should be addressed.

No one expects little Emma to face social and economic deprivation, of course -- unless the show goes off the air. And no one is denying that poverty and single parenthood reinforce each other in too many struggling neighborhoods in this country.

But a paper just released by the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington shows that marriage is a powerful predictor of children's well-being, regardless of income. Wealth does not inoculate children from the downsides of being raised outside a marriage.

"Family disruption in itself has a big effect on kids," says Mary Parke, a policy analyst who wrote the paper. "People tend to think about this issue with their own lens on, thinking about their own life or their parents', rather than from a public-health perspective."

And from a public-health perspective, the evidence is mounting that this old-fashioned edifice called marriage is still the surest shelter for anyone taking that rocky trip toward adulthood. Even faux marriages do not provide the same protection. Parke cites several studies showing that children who live with two cohabiting adults, or in a step-family, do not do as well as children living with married, biological parents.

This trend even transcends national boundaries. Single-parent families in Sweden, where the safety net is more like a trampoline and poverty is very low, suffer the same types of problems experienced by single-parent families here.

None of these measurements of human behavior constitute an exact science, and all of us can name exceptions to these outcomes, children raised by a single parent or in fractured families who beat the odds with room to spare.

There's also a caveat that must be added to any discussion about the value of marriage: The quality of the relationship matters. If Rachel and Ross had tied the knot and ended up in chronic, damaging conflict, little Emma would be no better off than if they had never married or if they divorced.

Promoting marriage should never lapse into the syllogism that all marriages are to be preserved. The state of Oklahoma, for instance, has one of the highest rates of divorce. It also has a lower-than-average age of marriage. Could Oklahomans be marrying at too early an age to make these unions work, for themselves and their children? Would it make more sense to encourage them to take the time to chose a good mate before rushing to the altar?

"It's important to realize that this is a lot more complicated than something you can say in a sound bite," says Parke.

But that cannot be an excuse to ignore the deeper finding: That the institution of marriage, with all its flaws, is still the very best way to raise healthy, happy children. There's still time for Rachel and Ross to do right by their baby. Next season, anyway.

Philadelphia Inquirer

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