December 18th, 2011 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The decline in the rate of marriage is an economic blow to both adults and children.  It’s a blow that has lasting, even intergenerational effects.  Ruth Marcus makes the point here and it can’t be made often enough (Washington Post, 12/16/11).

I’ve complained about the decline in marriage and its effects on children.  One of the reasons children suffer from being brought up in non-marital homes is that those adult relationships are far less stable than are married ones.  That means it’s far more likely that a child of unmarried parents will lose one of them (usually its father) than a child of married parents.  That can be emotionally/psychologically devastating both in the short term and in the grown-up child’s ability to form healthy romantic relationships.

That’s always been my focus, but Marcus’ is different.  She emphasizes the economic impact of the decline in marriage, and she’s right to do so.  First, it should be obvious that two individual adults tend to be less well-to-do than if they form a couple.  When they do, their incomes remain the same, but their expenses decrease.

But that’s far from the only economic aspect of marriage.  In the United States, the well-educated and the financially well-to-do figured out long ago that marriage was the way to go.  It turns out that those who don’t marry are overwhelmingly those who are already poor and poorly educated.  The decline in marriage rates reflects their decisions far more than those of the better educated, higher earners.

In 1960, the most- and least-educated adults were equally likely to be married. Now, nearly two-thirds of college graduates are married, compared with less than half of those with a high school diploma or less. Those with less education are less likely to ever marry and more likely to divorce if they do.

So when we talk about widening wealth gaps in this country, one important thing we’re talking about is the decline of marriage.  With the Occupy movement bringing wealthy inequality into the national spoltlight, you might have thought something as obvious as marriage would have become part of that discussion.  As far as I can see, however, Marcus’ column is the first to raise the issue.

“Family structure is a new dividing line in American society,” Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution told me.

As marriage increasingly becomes a phenomenon of the better-off and better-educated, the incomes of two-earner married couples diverge more and more from those of struggling single adults.

More importantly, the failure to marry, with its attendant detriments, tends to transfer from parents to children, who, when they grow up, repeat the pattern.

Of even more concern is the generational impact of this increased inequality. Being raised in a stable, two-parent household is a strong determinant of educational achievement. In turn, educational achievement is a strong — and growing stronger — determinant of lifetime income. As a result, the marriage gap becomes a grimly self-perpetuating process.

And the converse is true as well.  People who don’t marry tend to have unstable adult relationships and lower living standards that those who do.  Their kids, having grown up in families where adult romantic partners come and go, never form the attachments necessary to stable adult relationships.

In short, marriage tends to perpetuate financial and emotional well-being which in turn perpetuate marriage; non-marriage tends to perpetuate the opposite.

It’s not only that those at higher education levels are far more likely to marry — they’re far more likely to marry each other. “Men used to marry their secretaries,” Sawhill observed. “Now they marry the woman they met in med school.”

As a result, Sawhill said, “These two-earner couples at the top are just making out like bandits and these single parents at the bottom have miserable lives. If the single parents were married, their life wouldn’t be so miserable. And at the top, if these high-earning professionals weren’t getting together and forming little collaboratives, they’d be worse off.”

About those collaboratives: More people are cohabiting these days, but as an economic matter, this doesn’t solve the problem…

[C]ohabitation is not the equivalent of marriage in terms of family stability. Demographers Sheela Kennedy and Larry Bumpass found that, by age 12, about two-thirds of children born to cohabiting parents will see them split up, compared with a quarter of children born to parents who are married.

Finally, divorce, or the failure to marry tends to obstruct upward financial mobility.

A different arm of Pew, its Economic Mobility Project, found that among children who started in the bottom third of income, only one-fourth of those with divorced parents moved up to the middle or top third as adults. By comparison, half of children with continuously married parents — and, somewhat surprisingly, 42 percent of those born to unmarried mothers — moved up the income ladder as adults.

A number of factors contributed to the sharp decline in marriage in the United States that’s occurred over the past 40 years.  A historically strong economy in the 60s and early 70s was one thing; the dawn of no-fault divorce was another.  And at the same time, radical feminism condemned marriage as the oppression of women, but as is so often the case, facts failed to line up behind that ideology.  Indeed, they contradict it outright.

Then there are the things that remain from earlier times that continue to promote divorce.  Spousal support laws couldn’t be clearer in their encouragement of women to divorce.  And custody laws that reward mothers with sole or primary custody have been shown to encourage those same mothers to initiate divorce.

We’ve experimented too long with the idea that marriage is unnecessary.  It’s not.  For the sake of children particularly but for adults as well and society generally, we need a resurgence of marriage.  I strongly doubt that legislation mandating or encouraging marriage is likely to do the trick.  That said, I would support making divorce between spouses with children more difficult.

But essentially no institution in all of society sits children down and teaches them the importance of marriage.  I think one should.  I think that children need to get the message early and often that marriage can enhance their emotional and financial well-being.  More importantly, they should be taught an array of things about being responsible for one’s own reproductive choices.  For boys and girls both that means preventing pregnancy until you have the emotional and financial wherewithal to care for a child.  For girls it means telling the truth about who the father of your child is.  Above all, children should be taught the benefits of marriage and commitment to children.  And, if divorce is necessary, people should be taught the value of maintaining both parents’ active involvement in the lives of their children.

One of the reasons there’s been such a decline in marriage is that we make no effort to stop it.

Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.

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