Thursday, June 07, 2007

Marriage Before Kids: Do It For Your Country

I was reading a back issue of The Economist today. I have decided that I love The Economist. It covers so much of the world's news, to the extent that I couldn't believe I hadn't heard about some of the stuff from the US media. And then I remembered that the US media does not care about the Central African Republic or the passing of the 90-something year-old leader of Samoa. Especially not when Paris Hilton is in jail. 'Cause THAT'S news! Massacres involving dark-pigmented people? We can't squeeze that into our 30-minute Brian Williams/Katie Couric broadcasts. Bad for ratings, you know.

Anyway, I read a really interesting article about marriage in America. It recounted the data from several studies showing that the "marriage gap" between college graduates and high school dropouts is one major cause of the ever-widening economic inequality. I've never once thought deeply about the macroeconomic effects of having a child out of wedlock, but this article really brought it all home.

For example, "Only 4% of the children of mothers with college degrees are born out of wedlock. And the divorce rate among college-educated women has plummeted. Of those who first tied the knot between 1975 and 1979, 29% were divorced within ten years. Among those who first married between 1990 and 1994, only 16.5% were. At the bottom of the education scale, the picture is reversed. Among high-school dropouts, the divorce rate rose from 38% for those who first married in 1975-79 to 46% for those who first married in 1990-94. Among those with a high school diploma but no college, it rose from 35% to 38%. And these figures are only part of the story. Many mothers avoid divorce by never marrying in the first place. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among women who drop out of high school is 15%. Among African-Americans, it is a staggering 67%."

How effing frightening is that for our economy and our society? And why can't we find some kind of solution that doesn't demonize people or require them to accept Jesus? How about finding ways to get more poor kids into college or at least having them complete school, whether pregnant or not.

Using several metrics and university studies (that you can get via the article in the May 26th issue), they found that marriage is "a wealth-generating institution" for several reasons, including economies of scale and behavior changes vs. unmarrieds. It also discusses the cost of cohabiting, something I have always kind of favored myself on the theory that you need to know each other before getting married. "Research suggests otherwise. Two-thirds of American children born to co-habiting parents who later marry will see their parents split up by the time they are ten. Those born within wedlock face only half that risk." Another key--and sobering--point? "Since no explicit commitment is made, it is easier to drift into living together than it is to drift into a marriage. But once a couple is living together, it is harder to split up than if they were merely dating. So “many of these men end up married to women they would not have married if they hadn't been living together,” says Mr Stanley, co-author of a paper called “Sliding versus deciding”."

The article's main point is to ask what can be done politically and societally to ensure the economic well-being of American children, and close the economic inequality gap, rather than simply implying that gays are threatening the institution and then doing nothing. It offers no answers, but at the very least it asks the right questions. How can we reduce teen pregnancy, encourage marriage, and ensure the economic future of not only America's children--but America's economy as a whole? How can we approach a policy of supporting marriage without necessarily putting religious litmus tests on it? How can we fix this issue? I myself do not know, but the article has given us lots to think about, especially as we listen to the candidates for POTUS over the next year. It would be interesting to hear their thoughts on closing the income equality gap, be it financially-assisted higher education for all, better sex education or removing tax penalties for married couples. Because what The Economist taught me is that this is a seemingly micro issue but one that has tremendous current and future macro-level consequences for our country.

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