In spite of other disagreements, there is one aspect about marriage that both the left and the right can find to agree on. Marriage is a valuable anti-poverty program.
The Brookings Institution says that if we had the marriage rate today that we had in 1970, there would be a 25 percent drop in poverty. The Heritage Foundation says that marriage drops the probability of a child living in poverty by 82 percent.
This week we focus on Valentine’s Day; and while a celebration of romance is great, we should also celebrate marriage as a valuable culmination of romance, because it’s not just about love, but ultimately about providing a better life for the children of America.
The decline of marriage is complex and multi-faceted—high divorce rates, increasing cohabitation, and high rates of out-of-wedlock births (42 percent of all U.S. babies today) have all contributed to the drop in marriage. Here are five reasons why we need to start a movement to re-value and strengthen marriage:
1. The decline of marriage hurts the working and lower class. Recent findings show that in working class white America, only 37 percent of children are living with both their mother and father (compared to 96% in 1960).
In upper class America, the numbers are better—84 percent of children live with both their parents (compared to 99% in 1960).
We can’t ignore the overwhelming research that shows marriage brings greater financial stability to families, and single motherhood is the leading cause of poverty for both women and children.
It’s astounding that recently, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Human Resource Commissioner Robert Doar was reported to be planning a campaign to promote marriage for “the outcome of the child,” since 70 percent of all babies born in the Bronx are born to unwed mothers.
Most Americans feel compassion for the working 28-year-old single woman who finds herself in an unwanted circumstance and courageously chooses to give life and to raise her child alone. They understand her desire to maintain financial stability, and her hopes for marriage as part of her future.
But the growing epidemic of births to single mothers that NYC Commissioner Doar wants to address is coming from women who are choosing to put themselves in unwed pregnancy, very often during their teenage years, and who have no means of financial self sufficiency nor any expectation or plan that the father will be a constant presence and legal provider.
2. Loss of marital skills for the next generation. The decline in marriage rates (79% of U.S. adults were married in 1970, now only 52%) has been increasing the population of troubled youth and enlarging our prison populations (almost all prisoners are from single parent or broken homes), but there is another serious by-product: We are now raising a generation which does not know what healthy marriage looks and feels like, and thereby cannot model it.
This means their children will also be less proficient in relationship skills, the ability to use self discipline, to restrain impulses for the sake of another, to exercise forgiveness and seek reconciliation….and so much more.
3. Celebrity modeling sends the wrong message. While modeling adoption is positive, cohabiting unwed celebrity parents who make millions in the movie business are sending the wrong message about marriage to those who live paycheck to paycheck.
This devaluing the importance of marriage has created a new cultural norm that childbearing prior to or without marriage is eminently socially acceptable, even heroic. But research proves overwhelmingly that this is harmful to regular folks who do not have the enormous financial wealth that affords celebrities to live their unusual lives of abundance.
4. We can do better. It may be that the old-fashioned adage “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes ___ with the baby carriage” sent a subliminal message and played a role in keeping more women and children out of poverty. Part of the rhyme’s messaged called on men, too.
It challenged them to marry first and to live up to much more of their potential, even if they did not do so perfectly. While there should be no tolerance for abuse, it turns out that a husband who was just “good enough” was better, for any child, than going through childhood without a permanent and committed male role model (as opposed to a boyfriend or partner).
5. Our leaders know the truth, but don’t say it. The Obamas are modeling the marital path toward success in raising children, but we need them and more leaders to speak forthrightly about the best ways to really give one’s offspring the greatest advantages in life. If you graduate from high school, work full time, and postpone marriage and childbearing until after the age of 21, your chances of being in poverty are only 2 percent. If you don’t do all of those three things, your chances of poverty rise to 77 percent.
In our justifiable compassion and respect for anyone finding themselves in a difficult life circumstance, we simply don’t know what to say or do about the unwed childbirth epidemic. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s forewarning to us years ago was that a declining society accepts as normal the bad things that are not normal. Given our current predicament, can we now tug at something inside the human heart— hope for the betterment of one’s own child, civic duty, conscience, conviction about right or wrong (whether spiritual or merely practical) to shift the thinking and behavior of our fellow citizens….for their own good?
Let’s start a movement where more and more Americans seek out relationship education and marriage enrichment classes as often as we seek out other forms of self improvement such as home renovation, book clubs, grooming, fashion, décor, or cooking.
If we can change the public’s thinking and habits on recycling, smoking, exercise and healthy eating, how much more does America need a campaign to improve the public’s thinking and actions about the benefits to our country of encouraging healthy marriage?
Sheila Weber is the executive director of National Marriage Week USA (Feb. 7-14).