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Should We Care if Marriage Disappears?

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Marriage seems to be on the way out in Europe but is slightly more resilient in this country -- at least for the middle class. What would it mean for our society if couples stopped marrying? Perhaps the decline in marriage is not so important as social scientists led us to believe.

In the 1920s, people were aghast at the phenomenon of young people living alone in rooming houses and apartments. Removal from family supervision was an invitation to vice and moral chaos. As if to fulfill those dark fears, large numbers of single women began having children in the 1960s.

This was followed by a surge in crime, drug addiction, and other social problems from chronic unemployment to child abuse. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued a report identifying single parenthood as a major correlate of serious crimes. Although well-intentioned, this report had the unfortunate effect of further stigmatizing single mothers.

Moynihan's mistake

Moynihan made a common mistake -- even amongst professional social scientists -- of confusing correlation and causation. The fact that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes, and more likely to be incarcerated for their misdeeds, is not due to single parenthood per se but to the wretched lives of poverty and conflict that confront most single parents, and their offspring, in this country. Note that economic factors also restrict marriage because poor men do not earn enough to support a family.

How do we know that poverty is the culprit rather than single parenthood? The answer was provided by a natural experiment conducted in social democracies. In that natural experiment, single mothers were cushioned from poverty by generous child support provisions of the welfare state.

Correlation is not causation, however and when child poverty is eliminated, as happened in Sweden the association between single parenthood and crime disappears.

Given that children do not need their parents to marry and that women are no longer dependents of their husbands, there is a growing impression that marriage is passé. This impression crystallizes in rising single parenthood ratios.

Why are more women opting to raise children outside marriage? In my own analyses, I found that female participation in the paid labor force of a country is one key predictor of that country's level of single parenthood. If women have independent earnings they are evidently more likely to take on the responsibility of raising a child alone.

If marriage no longer serves the child production functions that it fulfilled in the past, should we care that it has become so anemic? Should we mourn its weakness, or lament the probability that marriage in the future becomes a minority phenomenon as the majority of mothers are single women (as is already true of several European countries).

The marrying kind

Apart from religious conservatives, the other group for whom marriage may persist is the wealthy elite. For them, marriage is not just a reproductive system but also a pillar of the hereditary elite given that marriages are a means by which wealthy families unite their fortunes to other wealthy families and preserve their elite status across generations via inherited wealth. Children of such marriages are born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouth.

For the hereditary elite, splendid wedding ceremonies perpetuate inequality across generations. They are also of great ceremonial importance because they advertise the social status of the families who stage them. That role for marriage is more relevant in highly unequal societies with a lot of inherited wealth than in more egalitarian countries where death duties discourage hoarding of wealth.

European indifference

In more equal democracies, like Sweden, marriage is a matter of general indifference, rather as religion is. Most couples simply move in together without bothering to marry. Should the relationship break up, as most soon do, any children are well cared for thanks to generous child supports from the state and diligent collection of paternity payments. Child poverty has been eliminated.

Whether a couple marries or not makes little difference for the welfare of their children who are, after all, guaranteed the necessities for living independent of the marital status of their parents.

Matters are very different in the U.S. where child poverty rates are high. Here, marriage is arguably an effective strategy for raising children who can succeed in the middle class. Married couples mostly live in middle class neighborhoods and send their children to good schools giving them reasonable prospects for success. That may be why marriage is getting more respect here than it does in Europe.