“For richer, or for poorer.” So the wedding vows say. But according to a report just released  by AEI and the Institute for Family Studies, the married are more likely to experience “for richer” than their unmarried counterparts. From the report’s abstract:
The retreat from marriage—a retreat that has been concentrated among lower-income Americans—plays a key role in the changing economic fortunes of American family life. We estimate that median income of families with children would be as much as 44 percent higher if the United States enjoyed 1979 levels of married parenthood today. Further, at least 32 percent of the growth in family-income inequality since 1979 among families with children and 37 percent of the decline in men’s employment rates during that time can be linked to the decreasing number of Americans who form and maintain stable, married families.
Growing up with both parents (in an intact family) is strongly associated with more education, work, and income among today’s young men and women. Young men and women from intact families enjoy an annual “intact family premium” that amounts to $6,500 and $4,700, respectively, over the incomes of their peers from single-parent families.
The report’s findings all align with common-sense assumptions: marriage in which both parents work result in the financial stability of a two-income household. If a wife does not work, then the husband feels the pressure and responsibility associated with providing for a family, and thus is more likely to consider how diligently he works, and how many hours of work he puts in. The findings given here related to children and their education make sense, as well: children in strong married families are more likely to have the financial and parental stability necessary to achieve many of their college and career aspirations.
These findings are very important for today’s marriage debate. In talking about how to decrease American poverty, some conservatives have tried to point out the role that marriage can play—but their suggestions have often been ignored or dismissed. This report adds a needed statistical edge to that conversation.
But there are also some important caveats and counter-arguments to present when considering the report. First, the data provided does not reflect the “shadow” of prosperous and happy marriages: namely, the American story of schismatic, painful, and damaging divorce. For all the stories of success that marriage brings, there are also stories of lives ripped apart by divorce. It has a significant impact on young and old, finances and social wellbeing.
Second, this report’s approach to the issue of marriage is obviously quantitative. It’s focusing on the cost/benefit analysis, as seen through data and statistics. It’s looking at the economics, not the soul. There are qualitative arguments that should be considered here—issues of personal choice and happiness that are just as important as the data (and indeed, have a significant impact on such data). All of these numbers represent individual lives and choices: people who decided to get married, and to stay married, even when it was hard.
But numbers aren’t going to be enough to make you marry someone (or at least, they shouldn’t be). No one should say to themselves, “Since marriage is a guarantor of economic prosperity and long-term wellbeing, I’m going to find myself a husband/wife.” Similarly, no one stuck in a frustrating marriage will say to themselves, “The data proves that people who stay married are better off, so I’m going to stick it out.” No. People get married, and stay married, because of qualitative and personal reasons: either their value system and/or religion promotes the idea of marriage, or they know happily married, respectable people. Often, both play a huge role. And it is these sorts of reasons: the deeply personal, the values and people that make up our very identity, that help us get married, and stay married.
This isn’t to say that data doesn’t have some value, but it does have its limits. It is very good at showing us our problem, but it isn’t very effective in providing us with a solution. How do you use this information to influence the way people in America view marriage?
The report gives some ideas on a policy level. It suggests the sort of gentle nudging, via tax policy and social programs, that slowly pushes people in a monogamous direction. Many of their ideas emphasize the need to decrease the financial punishments that often accompany modern marriage. We need to increase the economic benefits associated with marriage, so that people have more of an incentive to tie the knot.
These sorts of political measures could be very effective; a recent Pew poll showed  that money has a huge impact on how, when, and whether adults today consider marriage. Many men told Pew they’re delaying (or forgoing) marriage until they’re financially stable—while almost four-fifths of the single women said their biggest consideration is whether or not their potential spouse has a steady job. Thus, having political and economic policies that supported marriage via tax cuts or increased EITC benefits may have a positive effect on people’s marriage choices.
The report’s suggestion  of a social “success sequence” (page 50 of the report: emphasizing to people via social programs that they ought to finish high school, work, marry, and become a parent—in that order) is good, but limited in its ability to encourage broad change, I think. This sort of sequence is already largely emphasized in high schools and colleges today, yet we still see many high school dropouts, single mothers, and cohabitation trends throughout modern society.
Rather, it seems more likely that the examples and trendsetters we present to young people—the “success sequence” personalized—will have a more significant effect. Young people respond to the role models they see placed before them, whether they be Kim Kardashian or Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke or Derek Jeter. Obviously, the role models we show young people today rarely follow the “success sequence” themselves. That is why strong marriages—like the Obama’s—are important for young people to see. It’s why we need to emphasize family, friendship, diligence, and love in pop culture—not just fame, feelings, entertainment, and sex.
There’s a civic element here that the report rightly points out: religious and civic organizations can play a role in encouraging and supporting marriage. The report suggests that, whether through support groups or philanthropic programs, these organizations can help marriages survive and flourish. These could include providing marriage or finance classes, discounted or free clothing or furniture, job or child support, mentorship programs or regular family activities and events. The report recommends targeting men, specifically, through employment opportunities, men’s ministries, and other resources.
These are the sorts of measures that have a human face. They’re the sorts of efforts that turn numbers and stats into helping hands and listening ears. And if we’re going to stop the decline of marriage in America, it’s these personal, case-by-case initiatives that are going to turn things around.