“If I Were A Rich Man” … Does Marriage Make You Economically Secure, Or Vice-Versa?

Written by John Crouch


The “marriage gap” between the upper-middle and lower classes is not exactly the newest news, but The Economist sure can sharpen the story’s bite. “The traditional family is now the preserve of a minority …Traditional marriage has evolved from a near-universal rite to a luxury for the educated and affluent.”  “The decline of marriage: For richer, for smarter” (6/23/11).

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But are marriage and non-marriage a result of wealth and poverty, or the other way around? It’s both, the experts quoted in the article seem to be saying:

“Less marriage means less income and more poverty,” — Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, who has linked as much as half of the income inequality in America to changes in family composition: single-parent families (mostly those with a high-school degree or less) are getting poorer while married couples (with educations and dual incomes) are increasingly well-off.

“Marriage has become much more selective, and that’s why the divorce rate has come down.” Divorce rates for couples with college degrees are only a third as high as for those with a high-school degree. Americans with a high-school degree or less (who account for 58% of the population) tell researchers they would like to marry, but do not believe they can afford it. Instead, they raise children out of wedlock. Only 6% of children born to college-educated mothers were born outside marriage, compared with 44% of babies born to mothers whose education ended with high school.  — Quotation and and paraphrased information from Bradford Wilcox of
the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

People who have children but say they can’t afford to get married are tragically mis-applying and only partially understanding what was once very wise advice. Yes, it’s true that marriage is a social and economic partnership that requires preparation — it’s not the mere hedonistic, inconsequential dalliance that we have been pretending it is ever since the Sexual Revolution.

It’s not a recreational activity, not a purely private activity, and not a luxury. While it’s generally good advice not to marry without some economic security or at least a reasonable expectation of it, what that really means is that one should not take on the main responsibilities of marriage — i.e., having children — without those things.

If you already have children together, the ship has already left the dock with you aboard, and you need to look at the flip side of that old conventional wisdom: marriage, which even in an age of unilateral divorce is a more lasting, mutually protective institution than cohabitation, gives more economic and social security to parents and children — even, or especially, at lower income levels. And  it makes men more economically productive contributors to their families and communities.

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