The greatest economic challenge of our time is how to restore economic growth. Over the past dozen years, average real growth has slowed to 1.8 percent annually, under both Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses. It’s a bipartisan problem.
And it’s a new one. For the past 50 years or so, the American economy grew at just less than 3.5 percent per year. But we’re now experiencing one of the longest slow-growth periods in the past 100 years. Excluding the Great Depression, I bet it is the longest slow-growth period in a century.
There are any number of fiscal and monetary prescriptions for restoring economic growth. As a Reagan supply-sider, I would recommend lower marginal tax rates, lighter regulations, limited government and a sound dollar.
But I want to add this to the list: marriage. I have come to believe that marriage is a key element of a stronger economy.
At a dinner sponsored by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation a couple of weeks ago I gave a talk on the economic importance of marriage. Columnist Cal Thomas was nice enough to write about my talk. And many others have written about this topic. But before I jump into the statistics — which are overwhelmingly in favor of marriage as a means of improving incomes, wealth, and economic growth — let me try a thought experiment.
I worry that we are creating a permanent underclass of poverty. Broken homes and children that have only one parent are at the root of this poverty trap. And when I think of young people from broken families, barely existing economically, this is what I find myself telling them:
Please go to school. Do what it takes to finish high school, be it a trade school, or a tech-related school, and then maybe a community college. You will learn things — how to fix things. And you’ll open the door to a pretty good living.
Then get a job. And stay with the job for several years, perhaps climbing the ladder along the way.
And then get married. But don’t jump into bed immediately. As my wife puts it, “Do some research.” Then stay married for several years. Learn the sacrifices and responsibilities and compromises — and the happiness.
And only then, have a kid.
There’s nothing original about this thinking. I call it Kudlow 101. The trouble is, in our society, we are doing this backward. People don’t finish school. Don’t take a job. Don’t get married. But do have kids. Wrong order. Wrong formula.
Now some statistics.
Naomi Schaefer Riley writes that “children of married parents are more likely to graduate high school, less likely to go to jail, and more likely to delay sexual activity. And of course, children of unmarried parents are more than five times as likely to live in poverty.”
Economic writer Robert Samuelson notes that single-parent families have exploded, that more than 40 percent of births now go to the unwed, and that the flight from marriage “may have subtracted from happiness.” Citing a study from Isabel Sawhill, he notes that some unwed mothers “will have multiple partners and subject their children ‘to a degree of relationship chaos and instability that is hard to grasp.’”
Heritage Foundation economist Stephen Moore writes “that marriage with a devoted husband and wife in the home is a far better social program than food stamps, Medicaid, public housing, or even all of the combined.” Mr. Moore points to a Heritage study showing how welfare households are much more likely to have no one working at all, with social assistance becoming a substitute for work.
A recent report from the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, authored by W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert Lerman, reveals that married men have higher average incomes, seem to be more productive at work, and work more and earn more. Messrs. Wilcox and Lerman write that 51 percent of the 1980-2000 decline in male employment is due to the drop in marriage rates, and is highest among unmarried men. They find that “differing employment rates among married and unmarried men aren’t simply due to education levels or race either.”
They conclude: “Promoting the importance of marriage, looking for ways to reduce marriage penalties in current means-tested welfare programs, and engaging leaders at every level to find ways to strengthen marriage in their communities, are other critical steps to take to restore a culture of marriage.”
I’ll only add this, as I did at the Coolidge Foundation dinner: While restoring economic growth may be the great challenge of our time, this goal will never be realized until we restore marriage.
In short, marriage is pro-growth. We can’t do without it.
Lawrence Kudlow is CNBC’s senior contributor.