What is the ‘family advantage’ and why do immigrants have it over those born here?

Institute for Family Studies research suggests more marriage, less divorce in these immigrant groups

If marriage means stability for raising kids, as some experts extoll, immigrants may have that advantage over their more numerous native-born Americans.

A new analysis of census data published by the Institute for Family Studies on Wednesday finds that close to 1 in 7 people in the United States were born somewhere else and moved here. And study author Wendy Wang notes immigrant parents with children are on average more likely to be in first marriages than are their homegrown neighbors and friends.

“Immigrants are much more likely to have traditional family values, to put marriage ahead of childbearing. They are also more likely to believe couples with children should make every effort to stay married for family stability,” she told the Deseret News.

That so-called “family advantage” can counteract some of the challenges immigrant families may face, she said. “That they are stably married when they have kids is an advantage despite economic disadvantages.”

The advantage to kids is stability, which makes them feel more secure, she said. “We know from a lot of research in the past that kids really need a stable environment and a two-parent family provides that. If mom and dad have different partners, children may be confused and find it hard to handle that situation. It can be a distraction if they want to do well in school.”

Having access to two parents can also mean access to more resources, including finances, time and a broader array of skills.

In the United States, couples who are highly educated and more financially secure are more likely to marry than those with lower incomes and less education. But with immigrants, the opposite is often true. They are often economically disadvantaged and less educated, but still more likely to hold traditional family values around marriage and divorce than are people born here.

Wang found 72% of immigrants with children are in their first marriage, compared to 60% of native-born Americans. She said that for every 1,000 unmarried immigrants ages 18-64, 59 got married, compared to just 39 native-born Americans. Divorce numbers similarly favored immigrant marriages: 13 out of 1,000 got divorced, compared to 20 out of 1,000 in that age group who were born here.

A matter of origin

Wang calls marriage a marker of stability, a trait highest among immigrants from Asia. Immigrants with children from India are the most likely to be in a first marriage, at 94%, followed by Bangladesh, Pakistan, Korea, China and Japan.

Overall, more than 80% of immigrant families include “two stably married parents,” the report said.

On a list of 30 countries with the largest number of immigrant families coming to America, only Peru, Honduras, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Jamaica have fewer adults who are together in a first marriage than America’s native-born 60%. Jamaica, where half of the parents are in their first marriage, comes in last.

Pew Research Center in February reported that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is the daughter of immigrants. Her father came here from Jamaica — last on the list of stable first marriages, according to Wang’s analysis, while her mother came from India, which is first on the list.

Pew noted that in 2018, Asians made up 28% of the U.S. foreign-born population, compared to just 4% in 1960. “And starting as early as 2010, Asian immigrants outnumbered Hispanic immigrants among new arrivals,” Pew said.

Education doesn’t seem to be a particular indicator for marriage for those born outside the U.S. Among immigrants, just over half had completed high school, while close to 70% of American-born parents earned at least that diploma.

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The role of culture

The immigrant-family poverty rates is 15%, compared to 11% for America-born families. But immigrant family structure is still more stable, Wang said. “In fact, after controlling for education, income, race/ethnicity and age, immigrants with children are twice as likely to be in an intact family than native-born parents,” Wang wrote.

And it’s similarly true not just for first-generation immigrants, but for the children of immigrants who moved to the United States. Hispanic immigrants are less educated and make less money than native-born Hispanics, for instance, but are more likely to be in a first marriage. Similarly, Asian Americans are not as likely to be stably married as first-generation Asian immigrants, though their income is higher. And after controlling for education, income and age, immigrants from India are at least twice as likely to be in an intact family, compared to Americans whose parents came to this country from India.

What’s going on? Wang thinks culture plays a huge role — and American “individualism” works against stable marriage and families, despite its “virtues.“

“As we know, marriage is not only about personal happiness and fulfillment, but also family solidarity,” she wrote in the report, citing as evidence a survey the institute conducted in California in September and October 2019. The survey found Americans who believe marriage is about intense romantic love and connection are more apt to divorce than those who find marriage is not only romantic, but also important for children, money and raising a family together. Those couples have more staying power and are more satisfied within their marriages, too.

The report notes findings by another Institute for Family Studies fellow, Nicholas Zill, who reported children of immigrants excel in school and avoid behavior problems. Using 2016 data, Zill reported in 2020 that 22% of students in U.S. elementary and secondary schools had parents who emigrated to America. His findings challenged the notion that “academic success is tied to a student’s family income and wealth, social class, ability to go to school with good teachers and abundant resources, and ‘white privilege.’”

Despite everything that would seem to count against them, he said, including parents who have much less education than is typical of Americans, the need to learn English as a second language and not being white, among others, those children thrive academically. He also noted that many live in impoverished neighborhoods and their parents are less likely to be involved in school activities like parent-teacher conferences and fundraisers.

“Yet most students of immigrant parents are doing well in school. They are just as likely to be getting good grades as children of native-born parents,” he wrote. “They are better behaved in class and more likely to enjoy school. They are less apt to have been diagnosed with a learning disability or emotional disorder. And their parents are as satisfied with the schools their children attend as non-immigrant mothers and fathers.”

Wang warned that it can’t be said all immigrants thrive or that all immigrants are stable. Some backgrounds are more challenging than others. And a “selection” effect may make some difference, too. Perhaps in some cases, people who become immigrants share traits that make it more likely they are in stable marriages. That’s not well-studied.

In 2013, Zhenchao Qian, then teaching at Ohio State University and now a professor of sociology at Brown University, wrote that immigrants not only married at a higher rate than native-born Americans, but they also boosted the overall rate of marriage in America. But the rate of marriage among immigrants was decreasing, more in line with that of the native-born, he said.