Children in the 1950s and 60s grew up jumping rope to the rhythmic adage “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes (insert name) with a baby carriage.” I’m not sure if children in recent decades know this sing-song saying, or mentally even put the process in that order anymore. But in this week leading up to Valentine’s Day, many Americans are focused on love….and maybe the intended by-product, happiness.
With love and happiness in mind, here's some interesting linkage about the two. Last month the Federal Bureau of Economic Research reported new studies show that marriage does make people happier and have greater satisfaction in life. However, it also reported that fewer people are choosing to get married. Why the disconnect?
After talking with members of the younger generation (age 30 and under) I hear many of them say that part of their hesitation about marriage comes because their own parents were divorced and they don’t want to make a mistake. I also suspect that celebrity couples who live together without being married lend a tacit measure of social acceptability to this relatively new lifestyle choice.
Why is this a problem, and why should we care? Because research tells us there is an 82% chance a child will live in poverty if not raised by both of his or her parents. We know that we’d have 25% less poverty today if we had the marriage rates we had in the 1970s (that was back when 79% of adults were married; today it is only 52%). Children raised with both their parents will have less trouble with the law, less addiction, less teen pregnancy and more success in school. And here's a real an eye opener—if you graduate from high school, work fulltime, and postpone marriage and childbearing until age 21, there is just a 2% chance you’ll end up living in poverty. If you don’t do these three things, you have a 77% chance of poverty.
Research also shows that marriage is still mostly holding its own among the upper class, but is falling off a cliff in the lower classes—putting policy experts at a loss. Is it the loss of federal benefits that keeps low income couples apart, or a perceived marriage penalty in the tax code, or a generational pattern within certain communities that is hard to break, or just a values-driven trend? [News flash—I spoke to a tax expert this week and he said there is no marriage penalty in the tax code for couples with combined incomes in the $50,000 to $200,000 range—something not everyone realizes.]
The loss of marriage contributes to poverty, while the lack of economic opportunity and social ills contribute to the lack of marriageable individuals—a circumstance good-intentioned people, on both sides of the aisle ,do want to help remedy but don’t always agree as to how. There is one area where we can all agree--we can send a message to the next generation that no matter what the kind of family structure they were raised with, marriage can be as important to their happiness, financial stability and upward mobility as education. In fact, one day as they want the best for their own children, their own marriage will give their kids the greatest chance for thriving.
We are raising the first generation where the majority do not even know what a good-enough marriage looks and feels like. Single parent or divorced households certainly wish it were not so and hope to do better in the future. Yet they can still send a message to their kids--for your own health and well-being, mature adult love should lead to marriage.
Research is clear--marriage is actually good for you; it brings more happiness, better health, greater financial stability, and longer lives (single men live 10 years less than married!).
It’s time for a national conversation and a new movement for marriage education in every community and relationship skills in every public school.
Sheila Weber is the executive director of National Marriage Week USA (Feb. 7-14).