Should governments encourage their citizens to marry?

The Economist
December 10, 2012

Opening statements

Defending the motion: Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies Program

The question of whether the government is involved in marriage has already been answered in the affirmative by the many local, state, and federal laws and regulations that affect marriage.

Against the motion: Stephanie Coontz, Teacher, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA

Rumours of the death of marriage are greatly exaggerated. Marriage rates are calculated on the basis of how many women over age 18 are married.

The moderator's opening remarks

In 2009, marriage rates in England and Wales hit their lowest levels since records began in 1862. In 2011, barely half of all American adults were married-another record low. In 1960, roughly 72% of all American adults over the age of 18 were married; by 2011 that share barely exceeded half-a record low-and the median age at which both men (28.7 years) and women (26.5 years) first married has never been higher. The median age is even higher in the rich countries of Asia. In 2010, roughly one-third of Japanese women in their early 30s were single. Many of these women are unlikely ever to marry. As marriage rates decline, the share of babies born to unmarried women is rising. When Lyndon Johnson launched America’s War on Poverty in 1964, 93% of American-born children were born to married parents. By 2010, more than 40% of American babies were born to unmarried mothers-a share that rose to 52.5% for Hispanic births and 72.3% for babies born to non-Hispanic black women.

One might well shrug, and say that people can choose to marry or not, and whether they do so is their choice alone. One also ought to applaud those factors that, at least in the rich world, delay marriage or put it off entirely, such as vastly increased educational and professional opportunities for women, and the rise of urbanisation and concomitant increases in living standards (marriage rates have long been lower among more educated women, and among city-dwellers). No doubt the decline in religiosity across much of the rich world also plays a part in declining marriage rates. And to the extent that single mothers are no longer treated as pariahs, that too is all to the good.

But marriage affects not only the two people who tie the proverbial knot; it also has a profound effect on children. A mountain of evidence shows that children of married parents, on balance, tend to fare far better in life than children whose parents never marry. In America, more than 37% of single-parent, female-headed families are poor, compared with just 6.8% of married two-parent families. More than 70% of poor families have unwed parents, as opposed to just over 25% of non-poor families. If government has a role in promoting the general welfare of its citizenry-and particularly if all sorts of tacit marriage supports are built into the tax code-why should it not go one step further and actively promote marriage among its citizens?

On the other hand, while marriage tends to be associated with better life results, perhaps non-marriage is as much a result as a cause of economic instability. Wages for non-college-educated, working-class men have fallen dramatically in the past 40 years. Many unmarried, low-income couples with children reported waiting until one or both partners had a good job, and no longer needed to depend on friends, family or the government to marry; once that happened, the vast majority of such couples did marry. Seen in this light, is promoting marriage as a route to economic self-sufficiency putting the cart before the horse? Should government instead spend its resources developing things that make marriage more feasible-such as living-wage jobs and better economic security for the poor-rather than promoting marriage itself?

We are proud to have with us to debate these and other related issues Ron Haskins, a former senior adviser on welfare policy to President George W. Bush and now co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Children and Families, and Stephanie Coontz, the author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage” and “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap”. Ms Coontz teaches family history at Evergreen State University and is the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. We hope you too will participate in our comments section over the next two weeks.

The proposer's opening remarks

The question of whether the government is involved in marriage has already been answered in the affirmative by the many local, state, and federal laws and regulations that affect marriage. Localities and states have various requirements for people who decide to get married and for people who decide to obtain a divorce; tax laws either favour or discourage marriage; and a few programmes directly encourage marriage and provide funding for various activities designed to encourage marriage, especially among young couples who have had a baby together but are not married. In addition, there are numerous social programmes that have an impact on marriage incentives without necessarily intending to do so.

An important question is how far government should go in promoting marriage. I favour an active government involvement in encouraging marriage, but I would quickly grant that there are compelling arguments about why there should be strict limits on government involvement. Before discussing the kinds of government involvement in marriage I would favour, a few words are in order about why government should be involved at all.

The broadest justification for government involvement is that the American Constitution holds that the federal government is formed to promote the “general welfare”. There is no institution in society that is more directly aimed at promoting the general welfare than marriage. Yes, there are lousy marriages, but research shows that married adults are happier, have better health, are less likely to be involved in crime, and enjoy many other advantages related to their personal welfare and the welfare of their family.

Even more pertinent to the general welfare is evidence on the effects of marriage on children. There is almost universal agreement among scholars that the rearing environment in which children are most likely to flourish is the married-couple family. Children in single-parent families, despite government benefit programmes for the poor, have around a four times greater chance of living in poverty than children in married-couple families. Similarly, there is widespread agreement among researchers that children reared in poverty have more developmental problems and poorer outcomes than children who do not live in poverty.

If people were rational, they would wait to have babies until after marriage and do everything possible to sustain their marriage, both for their own well-being and that of their children. Yet marriage rates are declining and non-marital birth rates are rocketing, both of which are taking a toll on the nation’s welfare. If our federal government is formed in large part to promote the general welfare, government promotion of marriage is not only justified but also necessary.

In subsequent statements I will write more about the types of government involvement that seem justified, but here I want to provide two broad comments and an example. The first rule of government encouragement of marriage must be that coercion is not permissible. The second rule is that positive incentives, such as better treatment of two-parent families in benefit programmes, are reasonable up to a point. It is not possible to immutably define when incentives tip over into coercion, but here is an example of a reasonable incentive that I think should actually be put into law. Many mothers who are receiving cash welfare and food stamps would have their benefits reduced if they married someone with earnings. I would gladly support a programme that allowed such a mother to retain her full cash and food-stamp benefits for a year after she married. There is not strong evidence that incentives of this sort would actually increase marriage rates, but we should try it anyway and carefully study its impact.

The opposition's opening remarks

Rumours of the death of marriage are greatly exaggerated. Marriage rates are calculated on the basis of how many women over age 18 are married. With the age of first marriage at an all-time high, the percentage of married women has shrunk to new lows. But most women will still marry at some point in their lives. The real change is that marriage is no longer the master event that organises people’s entire lives and within which they make all their major life transitions, and there is increasing class divergence in those transitions.

Educated women tend to marry later than any other group of women, but encouraging them to marry earlier is not necessarily wise, because every year that a woman postpones marriage, right into her 30s, decreases her chance of divorce.1 Educated women also tend to postpone childbirth until after marriage.

Poorly educated and low-income women, by contrast, are less likely to postpone motherhood.2 But encouraging unwed mothers to marry may simply be a route to more divorce. A three-decade-long study by Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist, found that of more than 300 unwed teenage mothers, only 20% of those who married the father of their children and just 10% of those who married a different man remained wed throughout their children's lives.3 Impoverished women who divorce often end up worse off economically than if they had never married, while their children face the added risks of marital conflict and chaotic transitions in living arrangements.

It seems odd, then, that American policymakers would put more emphasis on encouraging such women to marry than on implementing policies known to be associated with delayed childbearing: access to safe and affordable contraception (with legal abortion as a back-up measure); and expansion of educational and employment opportunities that give young people the incentive to avoid pregnancy.

Governments should certainly foster policies that make it easier for people to enter and sustain stable relationships. But when policymakers view marriage as a cure-all for poverty and other social ills, encouraging marriage can become a substitute for policies that actually improve child well-being.

A new report from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research clearly demonstrates that marriage does not ensure economic security. The report, “Married … without Means”, found that 43% of parents caring for minor children and living below the poverty line were already married, and another 6% were married but separated. Less than 40% had never been married.

Non-marriage is statistically associated with a greater chance of poverty, but often non-marriage is as much a result as it is a cause of economic instability. Unemployment, low wages and poverty make individuals less likely to marry in the first place and more likely to divorce.

Marriage to a stable, committed partner who can hold down a job and is willing to share resources would certainly improve the lot of most low-income individuals. But often such partners are hard to come by. For example, Philip Cohen, a sociologist, reports that in many large American cities there are fewer than 50 employed never-married black men for every 100 never-married black women in the same age range.

White working-class women increasingly face a similar shortage of men with the means to “rescue” them from economic insecurity. Since 1969, the real wages earned by men with a high-school degree have dropped by a stunning 47%.4 In 1979, 63.3% of American jobs offered health insurance, compared with only 22.8% today.5

When Paula England and Kathryn Edin, both sociologists, asked low-income couples who had a child together why they did not marry, the couples said they wanted to first make sure one or both had a good enough job so they no longer had to depend on family, friends, or the government for survival. Almost 80% of the parents who achieved such self-sufficiency in the four years after their child’s birth did marry, compared with fewer than 20% of those who did not meet the bar.6 This suggests that telling people to marry in order to achieve economic self-sufficiency puts the cart before the horse.

While lack of money stopped many cohabitants from marrying, however, that was not the main reason many of them broke up. Instead, couples cited infidelity, verbal and physical abuse, lack of love and attention, and substance abuse. 

This suggests that the usual liberal-conservative argument about whether to improve people’s finances or improve their behaviour misses the point. Chronic socioeconomic insecurity makes it difficult to enter and sustain long-term relationships. It increases interpersonal conflict and wears down people’s ability to follow through on long-term goals.

Government should focus on strengthening economic security and developing more living-wage jobs while simultaneously providing relationship skills training like the programmes pioneered by psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan: and Minnesota's Early Childhood Family Education programme.7 Such initiatives could help more couples get and stay married while also improving the well-being of those who cannot, will not, or should not marry.

Stephanie Coontz teaches family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (BasicBooks).

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