In a Time magazine cover story in 2009, author Caitlin Flanagan asked, “How much does [marriage] matter?” She summarized her long article: “There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers’ financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass.”
Pro-marriage activists face a tough task in trying to repair the damage to marriage. Counselors are left trying to restore the wrecked lives of women and children from the fallout in personal lives and society as marriage has been undermined and declared unnecessary, irrelevant and/or impossible. Social science research has convinced the majority of scholars that marriage matters; demographic data make the case that marriage matters. Common sense, accumulated wisdom and shared experience agree: Marriage has far more impact on adults than most people acknowledge. Researchers indicate that married people have better health, longer and more productive lives, greater general happiness and better mental health than non-married individuals. Furthermore, they also agree marriage performs a critical function for society. Nothing harms children quite the way that not having married parents does. As Ms. Flanagan summarizes, “On every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households.” She adds, “Few things hamper a child as much as not having a father at home.”
Marriage, then, is important because the family is the context within which the next generation establishes lifelong habits and develops character. The child will learn - to the degree that the child’s family has the desirable characteristics and the child’s family life prepares him or her - to become a well-adjusted, productive adult who will contribute to the community and nation as a law-abiding and involved citizen. In this context, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote, “Marriage is treated by all civilized societies as a peculiar and favored contract. It is in its origin a contract of natural law.”
Indeed, most social scientists agree that marriage also has very important positive social consequences for communities and nations. The traditional married-couple family is the most effective training ground for building citizens who contribute to the common good. Marriage conveys numerous economic, educational, health and safety benefits that establish a foundation from which communities and nations thrive. Marriage has been called the “social glue” for the way it binds fathers to their children and unites couples while helping to strengthen the bonds between people and their nation.
Marriage is virtually a universal societal institution; cultures around the globe consider marriage the link that unites parents with their children and families to their communities. Though marriage is a critical institution in civil society, researchers agree that it is endangered and in a fragile state. Some even call the situation a crisis in that there is heated public debate (based on unfounded assertions of anti-family ideologues) as to whether a married-couple - mom-and-dad - family is the most stable and nurturing environment for couples and their children. After 40 years of distorted data and misrepresentation about the questions related to family structure, there are literally thousands of studies agreeing that the best family structure for children’s well-being is the married-couple family with a mom and dad. The studies also agree on the social costs of family disintegration. American taxpayers pay an enormous price for family fragmentation: divorce, unwed childbearing, crime, drug abuse, education dropouts, domestic violence, chronic illness, poverty and foster care. This tremendous body of research, however, does not deter those who have a vested interest in seeing the current negative trends continue and seeing the institutions of marriage and family - as they traditionally have been composed - disintegrate beyond functionality.
Without strong marriages, there cannot be strong democracies because democracy depends on an informed, mature citizenry of good character. In the absence of real-life daddies, the government is becoming the father in the family - though not a very effective one. A report in USA Today indicates that Americans “depended more on government assistance in 2010 than at any other time in the nation’s history.” A record 18.3 percent of the nation’s personal income was a payment from the government in the form of Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment benefits and other federal programs. Personal wages, at 51 percent in 2010 and 50.5 percent in February 2011, accounted for the lowest share of income since the government began tracking the data in 1929.
No wonder family researchers and historians are concerned. At this point in American history, the confusion, ambivalence and controversy over marriage are at a tipping point where the outcome is uncertain and the stakes are enormous. The reams of research data and the common experiences of teachers, social workers and law enforcement officers who see the outcomes of family breakdown on a day-to-day basis need to break through the media fog to reach the minds of the public to change attitudes and convince young people that marriage matters for each of them and that it matters for all of us.
Janice Shaw Crouse is author of “Children at Risk” (Transaction, 2009) and “Marriage Matters” (Transaction, 2012) and a senior fellow of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute.