Getting hitched is a pretty smart retirement-savings plan, if you can hold it together, for the simple math that when it comes to sharing expenses, two salaries are better than one. If one person gets the pink slip, there’s the second salary to help keep the house afloat. When kids come along, there are more hands on deck. It’s the roommates-with-benefits effect.
In the United States, with this year marking the 50th anniversary of president Lyndon Johnson declaring “war on poverty,” there’s been a lot of debate about the role marriage plays in making people poor. Ari Fleischer, press secretary under the Bush administration, argued that the “breakdown of the family” should be the focus of any poverty policy. Other Republicans have declared that the key to lifting families out of poverty isn’t government – but putting “a ring on it,” to steal from Beyoncé.
A new study released today by the Ottawa-based Institute of Marriage and Family has crunched the Canadian numbers using Statistics Canada data, and found a pattern similar to the United States. The marriage gap has widened by income. In Canada, couples in the highest income bracket are the most likely to be married, or living common-law – and have pretty much the same marriage rates as their counterparts in 1976. Middle and low-income Canadians have seen their marriage rates fall in all age groups, with low-income Canadians the least likely to be married in 2011.
Canadians are “split into haves and have-nots by marriage lines,” the report concludes. “The big story is that Canadian are divided along marriage lines by income, and that share of marriage has remained remarkably stable among high income earners,” says co-author Peter Jon Mitchell, a senior researcher.
Among its recommendations: The government should “consider tax initiatives and youth education campaigns that promote marriage,” better work-life balance in workplace practices, and even support for marriage counselling, an approach adopted recently in Australia. Certainly, there’s an economic and social value in helping families stay together, especially when kids are involved.
But are Canadians split along marriage lines, or is income influence how they approach marriage? The Institute study argues “there is evidence for both.” But if it’s the latter, then encouraging the swapping of vows is not a particularly useful poverty measure on its own, as researchers in the United States have observed.
For instance, for those under 35, and because the data also includes one-person families, the study is also capturing the trend to marry later. (The average age of marriage has jumped roughly five points for both sexes in that same 30 years.)
Half a century ago, educated, professional men married women who understood their role was to stay home. Today, like marries like – well-educated people with higher earning potential marry other educated people with higher earning potential – and the result is that they leap ahead. (An American study, reported in the Atlantic, found that in 1960, just three per cent of couples both had college degrees, compared to one quarter in 2010.)
The reverse is also true, for those with less education, and less stable salaries, making marriage a less valuable economic gift than it is for wealthier Canadians, particularly given the hit that jobs for low-income men have taken in the last several years. (Researchers at the Hamilton Project in the United States have tracked how the decline in share of marriage for men between the ages of 30 and 50 has fallen as average incomes also fell.)
“Marriage is not a silver bullet for social problems,” the study notes, mainly presenting the data, (which, also includes common-law couples) as a factor in economic stability with the families. That’s a no-brainer. More important is what conclusions policy makers draw from those findings. Unfortunately, in the United States, this has too often translated into demonizing single mothers. The circumstance most harmful for kids is not having one parent. It’s living in poverty.
Researchers at the Hamilton Project conclude that the best way to build strong families – and keep them together – is to “focus on the underlying economic contributors to the sea change in marriage and family structure.” They propose policies that support education and job training opportunities for low-income families, providing access to affordable child care so single moms can work. Reducing poverty will equal out the opportunity costs of getting married, and support the struggling, stressed-out couples whose vows are already spoken.