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Maybe ‘I do’
Unless we celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, many of them will face a lifetime of poverty.
The Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill wrote this year that if individuals do just three things – finish high school, work full-time and marry before they have children - their chances of being poor drop from 15 percent to two percent.
The respected scholar of child poverty went on the say that “unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, the new trend – bringing up baby alone – may be irreversible.”
Sawhill is not alone in her observations.
Across the Atlantic, the UK Centre for Social Justice concluded in its report, Breakthrough Britain, that the fabric of society was crumbling, leaving at its margins an underclass, where life is characterised by dependency, addiction, debt and family breakdown. It is an underclass where a child born into poverty today is more likely to remain in poverty than any time since the late 1960s. The Centre identified five key paths to poverty: family breakdown, serious personal debt, drug and alcohol addiction, failed education, worklessness and dependency.
In Australia, demographers at Monash University were some of the first in the Western world to observe a growing gap between the married educated, employed and well-off and those who are less educated, in marginal or no employment, and are unpartnered. It is a trend that has since been recognised in the US, the UK and elsewhere.
Hundreds of social science studies across the Western world now point to one incontrovertible conclusion: that the incidence of family breakdown and unpartnered parenthood is having a significant impact, especially on children, but also on adults and society.
The studies report problematic outcomes for the health, education and well-being of the young people affected by the changes. Where children experience more than one family transition, the risks compound.
This is not to say that all the effects apply to each child whose parents’ divorce, or who is raised by a single parent. There is no way to predict how any particular child will be affected, nor to what extent. But it is clear that there are widespread ramifications for this cohort of children as a whole.
Nor is it to suggest that many single parents are not doing a good job, often in very difficult circumstances.
Renowned sociologist Professor Andrew Cherlin notes that even if a minority of the affected children have their lives altered, it is still a lot of children.
Increasingly, social scientists argue that we must do something about the issue.
One the world’s leading marital scholars, Professor Paul Amato, concludes his survey of the research that “studies consistently indicate that children raised by two happily and continuously married parents have the best chance of developing into competent and successful adults.”
Professor Amato adds: “Because we all have an interest in the well-being of children, it is reasonable for social institutions (such as the state) to attempt to increase the proportion of children raised by married parents with satisfying and stable marriages.”
The alternative is to treat the negative consequences as the unavoidable flotsam of modern relations. This is a counsel of despair.
In my book, Maybe ‘I do’ – Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness, I have drawn from hundreds of studies to chart the impact of family structure on the health, happiness and well-being of adults, children and society.
The cultural and legal changes that have facilitated the trends are discussed, and the impact across the western world charted. I also examine the policy responses to date, before proposing a number of directions.
Four goals are identified. First, nations should have an explicit marriage and family policy. Second, they should seek to maintain at least a replacement birth-rate. Third, national policy should proclaim the ideal of marital permanence and affirm marriage as the optimal environment for the raising of children. Finally, the policy should value family stability and reinforce personal and inter-generational responsibility.
A number of specific policy suggestions to support marriage are proposed. First, better education about relationships should start in schools. Most schools have some form of sex education, but it should be augmented by an ongoing program of relationship education.
Second, the Labour MP Frank Field recently proposed in the UK that there should be more education about parenting for young people. He had observed that an increasing number of youngsters do not have a workable model of positive family life.
Third, pre-marriage education should be expanded. Currently, only a minority of couples participate in such programs, but those most in need often miss out.
Fourth, new parenthood is often a stressful time. There is a need to raise knowledge about parenting skills, something which the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has responded to with an education voucher for all new parents.
Fifth, many people enter new relationships when previous ones break down. Often this involves the formation of stepfamilies. These complex new arrangements involve many tensions for both parents and children. More assistance is required to prevent these relationships breaking down at an even higher rate than original marriages.
There is also a need for greater research into which programs provide the best assistance in preventing marital dysfunction and supporting the widespread aspiration that most people have for a happy and stable marriage.
Finally, many people later regret their divorce and wish that something more could have been done to save their marriage. The provision of reconciliation services was envisaged when no-fault divorce was introduced, but this has been abandoned largely. While maintaining the right to divorce, we could do more to allow those couples who so wish to pursue a reconciliation of their marital differences.
None of these proposals, which are outlined in detail, are remarkable, but taken together could help to address a trend that increasingly worries many social scientists and policy makers.
While policy makers can encourage marital stability, there is a limited impact that they can have on the culture. For this reason, the book concludes by examining those factors which social scientists observe are likely to assist individuals to achieve their aspiration for a healthy and happy marriage, and those that detract from this goal.
Kevin Andrews is an Australian member of Parliament. Maybe ‘I do’ – Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness is published by Connor Court Publishing. It is available from Connor Court and from Amazon.
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