Marriage for money?

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National Marriage Week touts matrimony’s financial benefits

For the twelfth year, National Marriage Week has launched its grassroots campaign to increase marriage education and champion marital success. Running always the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, Feb. 7-14, Organizers said marriage brings better health, increased wealth and greater happiness for married couples and their children.

Executive director Sheila Weber said, “Marriage is the number one social justice imperative to reduce poverty, so it’s vital that Americans understand the significant benefits of marriage for their own lives as well as the lives of their children.”

The rate of marriage has been stable, between 6.8 and 7 per 1,000 people since 2010. From 1982 to 2009, marriage rates fell steadily. Non-marital birth (having a child together before or without being married), cohabitation and single parenthood have also begun leveling out since 2017, according to the Brookings Institution.

People with higher education, at least a bachelor’s (four year) degree, are more likely to get married and stay married compared to those with lower education levels. Fifty years ago, marriage and divorce rates among those college educated and not were almost identical, but Isabel Sawhill, in her book “Generation Unbound: drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage,” wrote, “family formation is a new fault line in class structure.” Wealthier couples are more likely to marry because many struggling young people are waiting to afford a wedding. Costs of a full wedding have skyrocketed in the last 25 years, until the 2020 pandemic caused a downsizing in nearly all weddings in 2020 and scheduled for 2021.

Richard Reeves and Christopher Pullam studied adults between the ages of 33 and 44 and how many in this age group were married during 1979 vs. 2019. In 1979, 82 percent of individuals in the middle class (the middle 60 percent of income brackets) and 84 percent of the upper class (the top 25 percent) were married, while the lower class (the bottom 25 percent) had only 60 percent who were married. Marriage for the upper class has remained steady while the middle class has declined to 56 percent among the higher incomes in the middle class and 38 percent for the lower incomes.

Reeves and Pullam said for couples who have children, there are clear and uncontroversial reasons why two parents are better than one: time, money and energy. The difference in whether the parents are married or cohabitating made only a slight difference among middle class families as far as the children’s general economic well being.

Does marriage matter over cohabitation? Researchers said stability is correlated with family structure. Married couple families experience the most stability, and for children a stable family environment provides a solid foundation while instability is linked to negative outcomes for children, including behavior issues, poorer social development, lower educational attainment, poorer cognitive development and a wealth penalty in adulthood. In number, these differences are enough to make a statistical difference but subtle and not all-or-nothing.

Forty percent of children are born to or later live with a cohabiting couple, and most will go through 1.4 family transitions by age 12, triple the number for those born to a married couple. The couples themselves who cohabit and have children have many differences from married couples, including age, education, employment, wages, and intendedness of the pregnancy. These likely have more weight on outcomes for children than the fact of marriage itself.

For all the talk about stability and finances, though, love still wins. Love was the number one reason Americans cited for getting married. Only 12% who answered the Pew Research Center’s poll did not list it as a reason. Most of the general public, four in five, said making a lifelong commitment is still very important, as well as companionship.

Just fewer than half (49%) said having children is a reason to get married. Just 30% cited having their relationship recognized in a religious ceremony and 28% cited financial stability is an important reason to get married.

Even so, being a good financial provider was seen as an important quality in a husband or male partner with seven in ten adults saying men must be able to support a family financially while only 32% said it was an important quality in a woman.

This has been a lot of statistics to throw out, and I was curious about whether it really made a difference. I note many younger couples are waiting to tie the knot or choosing to not do so at all. The vast majority of younger generations from Generation Z, Millennials to even most of the middle aged Generation Xers say living together without being married doesn’t make a difference in our society. To compare, only 54% of those in the Greatest Generation (the oldest generation alive today, with the youngest around 77 years old) who say cohabitation doesn’t make a difference in society and 41% saying it’s a bad thing. As of late 2020, a larger share of adults have cohabited than have been married. Six in ten adults age 18-44 reported having lived with an unmarried partner at some point in their lives, and half have never been married. This is up from 54% who reported the same in 2002.

For every five marriages happening today, two of them involve at least one spouse who has said “I do,” at least once before. Half of those is a second or subsequent marriage for both spouses. It may not be surprising to note that men marry again (and again) more often than women do. Over half of divorced or widowed women told Pew they were not interested in marrying again, while only 30% of men said so. Among Generation X and Baby Boomer women who were married but aren’t married now, nearly 60% said they had neither plans nor interest in marrying again.

Most Americans see societal benefits in marriage, but cohabitation has wide acceptance in the U.S. Among all age groups, though there is a decline in acceptance in adults age 70 and older (though a sizeable minority of people in that age group have actually lived with an unmarried partner at some point). Two-thirds of cohabiting adults do see living together as a step toward marriage. That leaves a significant minority citing finances and convenience as major reasons to move in with a partner.

Exactly what does this all mean? We still marry for love. We still see the ideal aspects of marriage. But across generations, age groups, income brackets, geography, ethnicity, lifestyle and state of mind, most Americans don’t see marriage as necessary for a couple in love nor for the betterment of society. And with weddings becoming so pricey, a traditional wedding and marriage seems to be out of reach for people of lower incomes. Making it legal does seem to provide more stability for children, though many children have weathered changes in family configuration more than once and lived to tell about it.

Any partnership is a challenge, to be sure. It’s hard to live with others, though sometimes it’s a joy, too. Romance can get lost in the sludge of who takes out the garbage or sits down to pay the bills or takes the dog to the vet. But, showing up for each other can also give us the chance to be heroes. Those moments are not covered in sets of data, but mostly in our hearts.

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