News media have mostly garbled their reports of a new study of the income effects of marriage, published by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMF). They left the impression that poor people can't afford to get married. But what “The Marriage Gap Between Rich and Poor Canadians” actually shows is that the poor cannot afford not to get (and stay) married – unless they want to remain poor.
In fact the IMF study shows that marrying lastingly is a ticket upward into a higher income group for anyone. The facts are straightforward: marriage declined steadily in Canada after 1976, and then stabilized after 2000. Among the rich, the proportion of married declined over that quarter-century only slightly, from 95 to 86 percent; among the middle class the decline was sharpest, from 68 to 49 percent; the proportion of the poor who were married fell from 25 to 12 percent.
Marriage, then kids, equals prosperity
How does marriage promote wealth? Housing costs are halved; parenthood encourages thrift; stability enhances productivity (in married men, by 26 percent). The result: “Those who finish high school, work full time, and marry before having children are virtually guaranteed a place in the middle class. Only about two percent of this group ends up in poverty.” Also, the children of intact marriages are far likelier to graduate from college.
An American study published in January finds the same: “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States,” by Harvard economist Raj Chetty. Not only is single motherhood the biggest impediment to social mobility, growing up in a neighborhood with many single mothers is the second biggest. Poverty comes fifth; it is not the maim impediment to upward mobility.
Given the strength of the case, the IMF report is curiously muted. Perhaps it fears – understandably – that praising conventional marriage will be labelled discriminatory against single parenthood or gay marriage. Or could a focus on the problems of single motherhood strengthen the argument for abortion?
The IMF argues that while “Marriage is not a silver bullet for social problems…healthy marriages do promote economic and social goods – both privately and publicly.” It recommends government play “a modest role” in promoting marriage with educational campaigns, subsidizing (as Australia does) marriage counselling, and allowing tax splitting for couples (a promise made by Canada's Conservatives while winning the last election, which they are now reneging on).
Christians take note
But it is churches and their leaders, not politicians, who ought to be motivated by this report. Three-quarters of Canadians and 80 percent of Americans still get married in church; when clergy in a community combine to insist on marriage prep courses the resulting relationships last longer – as does their church membership. It’s a win-win.