The Pivotal Role of Marriage in Income Inequality

Stan Guthrie | Author | Friday, January 17, 2014

The Pivotal Role of Marriage in Income Inequality


A Leftist is someone who advocates marriage for homosexuals but opposes it for heterosexuals.

Recently, Ari Fleischer, a press spokesman for George W. Bush, responded to the current administration’s newfound desire to fight the plague of “income inequality”—which has spread more under Barack Obama than under any other recent president—by stating the obvious: that marriage is good economic medicine. 

“`Marriage inequality’ should be at the center of any discussion of why some Americans prosper and others don’t,” Fleischer said. “According to Census Bureau information analyzed by the Beverly LaHaye Institute, among families headed by two married parents in 2012, just 7.5% lived in poverty. By contrast, when families are headed by a single mother the poverty level jumps to 33.9%.”

The response from the Left has been predictable. Carol Gilligan, a New York University professor, asked sarcastically, “Does anybody know the word patriarchy?”

Stephanie Coontz, a contributor to the liberal Center for American Progress’s “Women’s Nation” report, suggests that conservatives want to force women into bad marriages. “Trying to shoehorn women whose expectations of equal treatment have been rising into marriages with men whose economic prospects have been falling is no solution to contemporary work and family dilemmas,” Coontz says. “Women are far less likely than in the past to put up with the kind of behavior that so often accompanies economic loss and chronic employment stress—such as drug or alcohol abuse and domestic violence—and we should not encourage or incentivize them to do so.”

Yet even liberal critics, so suspicious of the motives of those who advocate heterosexual marriage, can’t deny the correlation between it and economic well-being. “The social science literature is quite clear,” writes CAP senior fellow Ann O’Leary, “that children of single-parent families, particularly those living in low-income households, do not fare as well as their peers living in two-parent families, and that these poorer outcomes persist, even when you control for socioeconomic differences.”

Those outcomes are even clearer for married couples. “The statistics tell an awkward truth,” writes Emma Green in The Atlantic: “Financially, married women tend to fare much better than unmarried women.” Columnist Kathleen Parker acknowledges that “marriage creates a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and permanent commitment that holds spirits aloft during tough times.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, a possible presidential candidate, is one of the few national politicians willing to speak up clearly for the economic benefits of marriage. During a recent speech, the Florida Republican acknowledged the seriousness of income inequality, and also the existence of factors other than marriage in the problem, such as the lack of educational and economic opportunities. But he didn’t back away from the social factors, either.

“One of the greatest eradicators of poverty... is marriage,” Rubio said. “When a kid is being raised in a married family, [his or her] likelihood of being in poverty drops dramatically.”

And while marriage makes dollars and sense for women and children, it also helps the overall economy, which continues to struggle. According to a survey last fall by Gallup, “Married Americans report a daily spending average of $102, followed by $98 among those who are living in domestic partnerships, $74 by divorced Americans, $67 by those who are single and never married, and $62 by those who are widowed.”

Yet despite all the clear economic benefits to marriage, the marriage rate in the United States continues to languish. The National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University reports that the marriage rate has fallen to its lowest level in nearly a century. In 1920, there were about 92 marriages for every 1,000 married women. Today, it’s only about 31—a huge drop of two-thirds. Married couples are now, for the first time, the minority among U.S. households, according to the Census Bureau.

“Marriage is no longer compulsory,” says Susan Brown of the NCFMR. “It’s just one of an array of options. Increasingly, many couples choose to cohabit and still others prefer to remain single.”

The current economic decline, as many have noted, has been harder on men than on women—and the damage to families has been incalculable. Many couples delay or reject marriage because of their poor economic prospects, making matrimony increasingly the privilege of a few at the top of the economic ladder. Many women generally do better in colleges and grad schools than men, making marriage problematic to say the least. Many blue collar male occupations are disappearing, leaving many men as the modern equivalents of vestigial organs in the new economy.

Even some feminist observers are concerned that this devaluing of the male has dire implications for Western civilization. “What you’re seeing is how a civilization commits suicide,” says Camille Paglia. Marriage can help men every bit as much as women.

No one advocating the role of marriage in poverty and income inequality, to my knowledge, is calling it a panacea. There are many other factors in this multifaceted problem—poor schools, a lack of jobs, and so on. But to ignore the pivotal role of marriage, or the lack thereof, is to deny reality and to preclude finding meaningful solutions.

“One of the differences between the haves and the have-nots,” Fleischer notes, “is that the haves tend to marry and give birth, in that order. The have-nots tend to have babies and remain unmarried. Marriage makes a difference.”

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know, as well as coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://www.stanguthrie.com/blog.

Publication date: January 17, 2014

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