Marriage and Family

Family capital: The fuel that drives development

United States-2016-11-16-Family capital: The fuel that drives development

Every country wants to see an end to poverty and prosperity for all, while protecting the planet. This is what the member states of the United Nations agreed to work for by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals in September of 2015. These 17 goals set the UN development agenda up to 2030. But, practically speaking, how can such an ambitious program be achieved?

During prior discussions on the goals, the UN Group of Friends of the Family presented papers showing how the family is fundamental to the realization of each of the SDGs. These articles are now available as an e-book, Family Capital and the SDGs, through the collaboration of United Families International and the World Congress of Families. The book is essential reading for anyone committed both to development and the family, and over the coming weeks MercatorNet aims to present a selection of its contents. The following is the book’s introductory essay, written by Marcia Barlow, vice president of UFI, which explains the key concept of "family capital."

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Is there anyone working in the international arena who would turn down an offer of additional “capital” to secure success for the ambitious plan set forth in Agenda 2030: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Can a person, or for that matter a country, ever have enough “capital”?

Many are familiar with the term “capital” as it refers to things related to economics, business and finance. Or some may be familiar with the term “human capital” or, in recent decades, the study of “social capital.” But a less familiar term, and perhaps the most important form of capital, is that of “family capital.” Why? Because all other forms of capital—human, social, cultural, economic—emanate from the wellspring we call “family.”  

What is family capital?

The concept of "family capital" describes the resources the family unit can bring toward accomplishing important personal and societal goals. Anat Gofen-Sarig referred to it as: "The ensemble of means, strategies, and resources embodied in the family’s way of life that positively influences the future of the children."1

But I offer this more robust definition:  

Mothers, fathers, and their children engaging in the business of life supported by an extended and intergenerational family network—all working together to create a virtuous web that serves the economic, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being of all family members, and ultimately serves communities and nations.

What allows family capital to fulfill such an important role?

Nobel Laureate Gary Becker declared:

No discussion of human capital can omit the influence of families on the knowledge, skills, values, and habits of their children and therefore on their present and future productivity.2

A report of the UN secretary-general also emphasizes the critical role of the family:

As basic and essential building blocks of societies, families have a crucial role in social development. They bear the primary responsibility for the education and socialization of children as well as instilling values of citizenship and belonging in the society. Families provide material and non-material care and support to their members, from children to older persons or those suffering from illness, sheltering them from hardship to the maximum possible extent.3

The unique contribution of family capital lies, in part, in this description from David Imig of Michigan State University: “Family capital is the result of the system principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”4

The family unit is able to do more when it combines its abilities, rather than an individual, alone, endeavoring to tackle various challenges. But a family is so much more than an amalgamation of any given group of individuals working together toward a common end.

Unlike many societal entities, a family has the ability to take resources, however limited, and use them in the most efficient manner. The nature of the family allows it to intimately know the people involved and allow the resources to go to their highest and best use. Being the most efficient, a family would be more likely to produce a surplus of financial, human and social resources that could flow to the society at large.  

Commitment to share resources

Members of a family are bound together for more than economic interest with a commitment to share resources (talents, skills, energy, fidelity, emotional vitality, spirituality) and to invest them in the well-being of those closest to them. “Relatedness” (genetic kinship) brings about a synthesis of these important components—along with an increased commitment and fidelity to the relationship—which a conglomerate of disparate individuals can rarely provide. Self-interest is tempered by “relatedness.”

Social scientist W. Bradford Wilcox has hypothesized:

There is a connection between strong families and state prosperity, because

  1. marriage and family life deepen men’s connection to the labor force,
  2. they boost income and assets, and
  3. they improve the accumulation of both social capital and human capital.5

All forms of capital take time to accumulate, and accumulation is much less likely to occur in an unstable, short-term environment. Investment of resources is less likely to occur if a relationship is viewed as unstable and unreliable, with participants uncommitted. The intact family decreases the odds that those unhelpful traits would emerge. Divorce, cohabitation and other alternative family structures typify those less stable relationships.

Family capital is greatly diminished when families disintegrate or fail to form, and it is maximized when adults marry and create a stable unit and environment for all members, especially children, to flourish.  

How can family capital contribute to the success of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Perhaps we can get a glimpse of family capital’s power by considering questions such as these: 

  • How do you solve the problem of poverty and hunger without considering the role of the family in meeting temporal needs and providing sustenance to its members?
  • How do you achieve education of all the world’s children without considering the day-to-day involvement and efforts of parents?
  • How do you reduce maternal and child mortality without recognizing the role of mothers, fathers and families and what is occurring in the home?
  • How do you combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases without the day-to-day involvement, teaching and caring of committed parents and family members?

When we speak of “Sustainable Development Goals,” attention must be given to what actually is sustainable. By definition, a system that is sustainable involves methods that do not completely use up or destroy available resources, enabling them to last or continue for extended periods. There are few things more organic, natural and sustainable than a mother, father and their children.

The family unit provides a wonderful combination of the following characteristics:

1) productivity, 2) efficiency, and 3) continuity—all of which contribute to increased sustainability.

Within a stable, intact family there are less poverty and hunger, better outcomes for children, greater economic achievement, more wealth, and less crime and violence. This type of family has increased capacity to produce a net positive economically, higher education attainment, consume fewer natural resources, allow for efficient specialization, and contain the critical intergenerational component. It has the added advantage of decentralizing power and reduces the risk of government overreach.

Following are several examples:  


Divorced households in the United States could have saved more than 38 million rooms, 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, and 627 billion gallons of water in 2005 alone, if their resource-use efficiency had been comparable to that of married households. … The [study] results suggest that mitigating the impacts of resource-inefficient lifestyles such as divorce helps to achieve global environmental sustainability and saves money for households.6


Poverty and hunger

Scholars at United Nations University acknowledge the power of family capital:

Children thriving in poor communities were statistically most likely to live in families characterized by traditional fireside family values: devoted mothers and fathers, happy marriages, and warm cooperative bonds with siblings, grandparents, other relatives and the broader community.7

Family structure is a better predictor of outcomes like economic mobility, child poverty, and median family income than are race or education.8 In the United States 70 percent of never-married mothers would be able to escape poverty if they were married to the father of their children.9   



Parental involvement in their child’s education is a more significant factor in a child’s academic performance than the qualities of the school itself.10

We know that children who come from married families tend to graduate from high school and graduate from college at higher rates. They are more likely to be gainfully employed as adults and to work more hours. This is true for both young men and young women; if you are concerned about women’s [empowerment and] professional opportunities, you should be concerned about their family structure growing up.11  


Economic growth and full and productive employment

Married men with children are 13 percentage points more likely to be in the labor force than their comparable single peers. … Married families have more money to manage, and they tend to manage it more prudently than families headed by single parents and cohabiting couples. They draw on economies of scale. They pool income. They have higher rates of saving. They get more financial support from their kin. And they are more likely to stay together, which also reinforces their economic position.12

Among couples who married and stay married, the per-person net worth increased on average by 16 percent with each year of marriage. Compared to those who remained single, getting married increased one’s wealth, on average, by 93 percent.13  

What factors will increase family capital?

  • Encourage marriage and children—in that order.
  • Recognize that divorce, cohabitation, single parenthood, and other family forms, however well-intentioned, do not make the same contribution to sustainable development.
  • Launch civic efforts to strengthen marriage and family.
  • Increase the understanding that human beings are not a hindrance to sustainable development, but a necessary and critical component.
  • View public policies and programs through a family-impact lens.

The authors of the influential “Family Impact Report” emphasize that “families do better in a supportive policy environment—one in which, for example, schools actively seek parental engagement; employers recognize that workers are also family members; agencies and organizations are family-centered in their philosophy and operation; and laws support family members’ roles as caregivers, parents, partners, and workers.”14  


Empowering the family and enhancing family stability are crucial inputs in the sustainable development process. High levels of family capital are essential for a country, as it will have a direct impact on human, moral, and social capital and upon efficient resources use, economic activity and economic structures. The family unit is best suited for producing caring, competent, and productive citizens who can meet the demands and challenges of an ever-changing world.

A resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly reminds us:

The SDG targets, especially those relating to the reduction of poverty, education of children, and gender equality, are difficult to attain unless the strategies to achieve them focus on the family.15

As we work together as a world body to solve problems and create a better world, we would do well to examine the contributions of the family and the capital the family produces. We should view the family not as a receiver, a consumer or even a “taker” of goods and government largesse, but as a potential powerhouse that will aid in growth and development.

It is time to recommit ourselves to empowering the family, for without it, the essential goals of the international community cannot be met.  

Marcia Barlow is the vice president of United Families International, a US public charity devoted to maintaining and strengthening the family as the fundamental unit of society. Her article is reproduced with permission of Ms. Barlow and the editor of Family Capital and the SDGs, Susan Rolance.



1. Gofen-Sarig, Anat, "Family Capital: How First-Generation Students Break the Intergenerational Cycle" (IRP Discussion Paper #1371-08), University of Wisconsin-Madison, Institute for Research on Poverty (2007).

2. Becker, Gary, A Treatise on the Family. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1991).

3. Reports of the Secretary-General, Follow-up to the tenth anniversary of the International Year of the Family and beyond, A/66/62-E (November 2010).

4. Imig, David R., “Family Capital versus Family Social Capital: Different Boundaries, Different Processes,” Michigan State University,

5. Wilcox, Bradford W., Lerman, Robert I. and Price, Joseph, “Strong Families, Prosperous States: Do Healthy Families Affect the Wealth of States?” American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies (2015).

6. Yu, Eunice and Liu, Jianguo, “Environmental Impacts of Divorce,” Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, Michigan State University, MI 48823-5243 (2007).

7. United Nations University (1995),

8. Wilcox, Bradford W., Lerman, Robert I. and Price, Joseph, “Strong Families, Prosperous States: Do Healthy Families Affect the Wealth of States?” American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies (2015).

9. Rector, Robert, Johnson, Kirk, Fagan, Patrick and Noyes, Lauren, “Increasing Marriage Will Dramatically Reduce Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA03-06 (2003).

10. Dufur, Mikaela J., et al., "Does capital at home matter more than capital at school? Social capital effects on academic achievement,” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, Vol. 31 (March 2013) pp. 1-21.

11. Wilcox, Bradford W., Lerman, Robert I. and Price, Joseph, “Strong Families, Prosperous States: Do Healthy Families Affect the Wealth of States?” American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies (2015).

12. Ibid.

13. Zagorsky, Jay, “Marriage and Divorce’s Impact on Wealth,” Journal of Sociology 41, 4 (2005): pp. 406-424.

14. Bogenschneider, Karen, et al., “The Family Impact Rationale: An Evidence Base for the Family Impact Lens,” The Family Impact Institute (2012) p. 14.

15. Resolution adopted by the [UN] General Assembly on 20 December 2012, Preparations for and observance of the twentieth anniversary of the International Year of the Family, A/RES/67/142


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