Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column asks the question: what if marriage matters? What if we’ve started this vast social experiment saying that marriage is just a choice–and we’re doing some real harm without realizing it?
In Canada we like to think we’re a classless society. Anybody can make it to the top! Nevertheless, you can still divide us into different groups. You could do so on economic lines: the rich and the poor. You could base them on education: those who have it and those who don’t. You could even base it on race.
Increasingly, though, the real divide in our society is a family one. The biggest indicator of future success for children isn’t the parent’s education level, nor is it the parents’ wealth, race or religion. It’s whether or not the parents are in a stable marriage.
Much of this is a poverty issue. Children are far more likely to live in poverty if they grow up with a single parent than if they grow up with two parents present. But it’s not solely a poverty issue, because children born into poverty, if they also have two married parents, tend to escape poverty. Children of single parents born into poverty tend to stay in poverty.
The question is which causes which? Most who believe in the rich against poor rhetoric believe that the problem is primarily one of poverty; families fall apart when they are poor, so the poverty comes first. But increasingly that’s not the picture being painted by our statistics. It looks like family breakdown is what hurts children and their wallets and their schools more than poverty. The real gap is not one of money or race; it’s one of family. With a strong nuclear family, you can overcome almost anything. Without it, it’s pretty difficult.
It isn’t just having another parent present that makes the difference, either. The Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman looked at cohabiting couples, and found that even when you control for education and race, their children don’t do as well as children living with two married biological parents. Something about marriage boosts children’s prospects.
None of this means that any particular child is destined to go down a certain route. All of us, as individuals, have the power to determine our own destiny. I grew up with a single mother who worked incredibly hard for me, and I consider myself very blessed. I have known step-fathers who have been more of a father to the kids than the biological father was. There are always exceptions, but that does not mean that on a societal-wide basis such things are not still true.
For the last several decades we’ve been engaged in a vast social experiment. Does the institution of marriage, as it has been practiced for thousands of years, really matter?
After reams of studies, it’s clear that it does. Yes, some marriages are abusive and can’t be saved, but on the whole, marriage is a positive good for our society.
Of course, many of our opinion-makers in government and media and education don’t want to admit that, because it sounds judgmental. And it also sounds like traditional morals may actually have some benefit, and too many hate the idea of being constrained by morals. But the elite are not the ones bearing the brunt of family breakup. Those who bear the costs are those at the margins–the kids born to girls who were never taught that marriage was something to look forward to, and to boys who were never taught that a real man gets married and takes care of his responsibilities.
If we want to help children, let’s stop kidding ourselves and tell the truth: marriage is good for kids. Yes, people can succeed regardless of background, but why would we not want the best? We’re not afraid to say that smoking carries risks, as does eating badly and not exercising. So let’s say it clearly here, too: divorce hurts kids, and marriage helps them. Those are the facts, and kids would fare better if we faced them.
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