Marriage: Should governments encourage their citizens to marry? Rebuttal statements

The Economist
December 14, 2012

Rebuttal statements

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

If we could devise ways to increase the marriage rate with modest negative outcomes such as somewhat increased divorce, adults, children and society would be better off. But can it be done?

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

No one denies that a healthy, collaborative, long-term marriage benefits both the adults and children involved. But many claims about the social benefits of getting married mistake selection effects for causation effects.

The moderator's rebuttal remarks

Many thanks to our spirited debaters, Ron Haskins and Stephanie Coontz, who have gamely and courteously set the framework for this debate. Thanks too to our readers who have voted and commented.

This is a sensitive topic, and our debaters deserve a great deal of credit for keeping the discussion on precise and civil ground. I suspect that many people have an instinctive aversion to government meddling in such a profoundly personal arena. But I also suspect that many would hope for successful, stable, happy marriages for as many people as want them.

Certainly our two debaters agree on much. In our opening round, Mr Haskins supported government encouragement of marriage, but also conceded “that there are compelling arguments about why there should be strict limits on government involvement”. Ms Coontz, opposing the motion, conceded that “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 much is not all. Ms Coontz suggests that government encouragement of marriage for economic reasons misses the mark. Non-marriage, she says, “is as much a result as it is a cause of economic instability”. Low wages, poverty and unemployment make people less likely to marry and more likely to divorce. Government should focus its efforts not on marriage, but on the underlying causes of non-marriage: improving economic stability for the poor and doing what it can to create more jobs that pay a living wage. Ms Coontz refers to a study that asked unmarried low-income parents why they had not yet married. The couples said they wanted to achieve a measure of economic self-sufficiency, and not have to depend on friends and family. Of those couples that did achieve that within four years of their child’s birth, 80% married.

That would no doubt cheer Ms Coontz’s opponent. If the government’s role is to promote the “general welfare” of its citizenry (a phrase enshrined in America’s constitution), Mr Haskins argues, then “there is no institution in society that is more directly aimed at promoting the general welfare than marriage”. That is not merely because married people tend to be happier and healthier, but also—perhaps even primarily—because children raised in married two-parent homes are far less likely to wind up in poverty than children in single-parent homes. And children raised in poverty have more developmental problems and tend to fare worse in later life than non-poor children.

So far Ms Coontz’s arguments appear, narrowly, to be persuading the most voters. Commenters seem sceptical of both the rightness and the utility of government intervention. Skinflint analogises: “In the same way as e.g. there are no tax breaks for individuals to be religious, there should be no tax breaks for being married.” He and another commenter wonder about the effect of a weak economy on marriage rates.

Now we move on to the rebuttal phase. I look forward to hearing the next phase of our debaters’ arguments. What are the likely effects of non-marital childbirth on children and on society? What policies can best counteract those effects? We hope you will stay with us.

The proposer's rebuttal remarks

Along with Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins professor, Stephanie Coontz is the most formidable critic of programmes designed to promote marriage. The major points in her critique of government policies aimed at encouraging marriage and teaching relationship skills are telling. Many poor women, especially minority women, have lousy choices for marital partners; women have an undeniable right to have babies even if they cannot find the right marital partner; non-marriage is often the result of poverty, not the other way around; family violence is a serious issue; and poorly educated adults have been experiencing greater and greater problems finding jobs that provide income and health insurance adequate to supporting a family.

Even granting all her criticisms, however, we are left with two important considerations. Numerous studies show that married adults are happier, healthier and more financially secure than adults who are not married. Even more important, there is now virtually universal agreement among scholars that children reared by their married parents do better than children reared by single or remarried parents.

If a small percentage of American children were reared in single-parent families today, the growing emphasis on individual freedom to choose lifestyles, the right to change partners, the right to form second families and other departures from the traditional married-couple child-rearing unit would not be of great concern. But as early as 1965, prescient observers like Daniel Patrick Moynihan began sounding the alarm that children reared by lone mothers were disadvantaged in many ways relative to their peers raised by their married parents. Mr Moynihan, who was concerned primarily with the demise of the black family, went so far as to argue that the repercussions of single parenting would disrupt whole neighbourhoods and cities and were a threat to the future of the nation.

At the time of Mr Moynihan’s early warning, the non-marital birth rate among blacks was about 35%. Today the non-marital birth rate among blacks is over 70%, the rate among Hispanics is over 50% and the overall rate among all Americans is over 40%. Thus, the entire nation has reached the status that Mr Moynihan saw as threatening to black children and neighbourhoods. Equally important, as marriage scholars such as Brad Wilcox and Gretchen Whitehead have been emphasising for several years, the rise of non-marital births has been spreading to women with more education and seemingly better prospects. The percentage of women with a high-school or college degree who have had a non-marital birth has more than tripled over the past three decades. The decline of cultural prohibitions against birth before marriage seems to be moving up the socioeconomic scale.

Thus, an ever-increasing share of children is being reared in a family environment that greatly increases their chances of living in poverty and imposes constraints on their development. These constraints, in turn, are imposing major costs on taxpayers and are reducing the opportunity for millions of children to avoid developmental problems such as school drop-out, teen pregnancy and delinquency that reduce their odds of getting a good education, securing good jobs and establishing their own stable families.

Ms Coontz is rightly concerned about the potential negative outcomes that afflict young adults who rush into marriage. She cites evidence that poor women who marry often wind up divorcing their child’s father and then suffer economic circumstances worse than the circumstances they would have achieved if they had not married. But I have yet to encounter a social policy that produces all benefits and no costs. If we could devise ways to increase the marriage rate with modest negative outcomes such as somewhat increased divorce, adults, children and society would be better off. But can it be done? That’s next.

The opposition's rebuttal remarks

No one denies that a healthy, collaborative, long-term marriage benefits both the adults and children involved. But many claims about the social benefits of getting married mistake selection effects for causation effects.1 They confuse the economic, social and psychological characteristics that tend to push or pull people into certain family forms with the idea that those particular family forms create such characteristics. On average, married people are happier, healthier, more economically self-sufficient and less prone to crime than the unmarried. But individuals who are happier, healthier, more economically self-sufficient and less crime-prone are more likely to marry in the first place.

And the reverse is also true. People with significant problems are less likely to marry. The Fragile Families Study, for example, found that men who became fathers without having first married were twice as likely as married fathers to have a physical or psychological problem that interfered with their ability to find or keep a job, and several times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.2 Similarly, more than two-thirds of the low-income, predominantly single mothers studied by Linda Burton and her research team had previously experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse, which have been shown to interfere with people’s functioning both as partners and as parents.3

When a couple marries and is able to make their marriage work, it helps multiply their initial advantages. But getting married does not guarantee good outcomes. Unhappily married individuals are more prone to depression than people who stay single. Having an argumentative or highly critical spouse can seriously damage a person’s health, raising blood pressure, lowering immune functions, and even worsening the symptoms of chronic illnesses like arthritis.4

It is true that having only one adult in the home to earn income and provide daily supervision creates particular child-rearing challenges. But again, a large share of the problems seen in children of unmarried parents results from circumstances or personal characteristics that make it harder for those parents either to sustain stable partnerships or to engage in effective child-rearing. After taking into account parental education, income, occupation and aspirations for children, W. Norton Grubb, an educational researcher, found that coming from a single-parent family had little additional negative impact on the test scores of teens or on their likelihood of going to college. In fact, changing schools increases a teen’s risk of dropping out more than does being raised by a single mother.5

Many of the purported advantages of marriage over cohabitation also disappear when researchers take selection factors into account. A recent British study6 found no statistically significant differences in the social and emotional development of children of married and cohabiting parents once they controlled for precarious financial situations, low education, likelihood of the pregnancy being planned and relationship quality between the parents.

I agree that governments should remove disincentives that discourage committed couples from formalising their relationship. I, too, favour allowing mothers to retain cash and food-stamp benefits for a year after marriage. The Earned Income Tax Credit—arguably America’s single most effective anti-poverty programme—might be revised so it does not decrease so much when a recipient marries. But, as Ron Haskins admits, there is little strong evidence that such initiatives would have much impact on marriage rates. And even if they did encourage unwed mothers to wed, child well-being might not improve, because marriages formed after rather than before the birth of a child tend to be conflict-ridden and divorce-prone.

As Mr Haskins says, “better treatment of two-parent families in benefit programmes” is needed. Of the more than 2.5m married couples with children living in poverty in 2011, only 102,000 received help from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Programme. We can only correct such policy failures by rejecting the myth that marriage is the solution to poverty. We need to invest in programmes to improve the earnings prospects for low-skilled workers and to provide higher-quality child-care and pre-school facilities for all children, regardless of their parents’ marital status.


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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