Evangelicals appear increasingly interested in promoting social justice for the downtrodden and the poor. Caring for the least of these has been a central part of Christian history, since Acts 6 and the church's first seven deacons. Christians started the first hospitals, soup kitchens, substance-abuse centers, and orphanages, and urged the abolition of slavery. The Salvation Army, Youth with a Mission, Mercy Ships, Compassion International, World Vision, and pregnancy centers have strong, noble histories from 20th century evangelicalism.
But an important new angle on social justice is emerging in academic circles that every concerned Christian should understand and acknowledge, a central factor in determining whether one lives in poverty or not. Just 60 years ago, those who had stable employment were seldom poor. Forty years ago, education became the gulf which separated the haves from the have-nots. For the past 20 years or more, though, the unexpected factor in whether our neighbors and their children rise from poverty is marital status. Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute, explains: "The proliferation of single-parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970s."
The Christian's attention to the well-being of marriage among the various strata of society is about far more than mere traditionalism or empty moralism. Marriage is unarguably a central love of neighbor issue.
Bill Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings who served as President Clinton's domestic policy advisor, has explained that an American today must only do three things to avoid living in poverty: graduate from high school, marry before having a child, and have children after age 20. Only 8 percent of people who do these three things are poor, while a stunning 79 percent who fail to meet these expectations live in poverty.
Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute makes important observations of how marital status is related to poverty in his important new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 19602010. In 1960, the poorly and moderately educated were only 10 percent less likely to be married than the 94 percent of college-educated Americans who were married. The comparison between the two groups largely held until 1978. Today, these two groups are separated by a 35 percent margin. According to a recent report from the Brookings Institute, the strong rate of marriage among the highly-educated, top-earning Americans has largely held constant and even seems to be increasing. But the bad news is that marriage is sinking dramatically among low and middle-class Americans, down from 84 percent to a minority of 48 percent today—a dramatic decline over the last 40 years, and no indicators hint at a slowing pace. The stark trend line leads Murray to lament, "Marriage has become the fault line dividing America's classes."
In some ways, the concern about marriage and class mobility is not new at all. In 1965, a young Daniel Patrick Moynihan passionately warned his boss, President Lyndon Johnson, and our nation that the new landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was not likely to be fully successful because the African American family was dangerously fragile and continuing to weaken. On the first page of his infamous report—which was one of the first shots fired in the modern culture war over the family—Moynihan warned of the consequences stemming from the persistent "crumbling" of the African American family: "So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself" among African Americans.
The problem has persisted: the percentage of all married women in the U.S. is 50 percent (53 percent for white women), but is a tragically low 29 percent for African American women. The wide disparity led to culturally soul-searching books such as Stanford professor Ralph Richard Banks's Is Marriage for White People?, in which he contends that marriage recovery is essential for the socio-economic well-being of African Americans. A larger question could be, "Is marriage for rich people?"
Marriage is not just a personal, sentimental institution, giving couples something to feel good about at each year's anniversary. The scholars at the National Marriage Project working from the University of Virginia offer dramatic evidence in their recent report (page 78) that marriage is a "wealth-generating institution."
All other things being equal, the never-married are 75 percent less wealthy than their continuously married peers. And two people are not necessarily wealthier than one. Cohabitors generally are 58 percent lower in financial wealth than those who are married. And those who divorce and never remarry have a 72 percent lower amount in wealth. The National Marriage Project suggests that those with better financial prospects are not necessarily more likely to marry, but the "institution of marriage itself provides a wealth-generation bonus."
Nobel-winning economist George Akerlof has explained the pro-social influence of marriage upon men and fathers. "Married men are more attached to the labor force, they have less substance abuse, they commit less crime, are less likely to become the victims of crime, have better health, and are less accident prone," he said in a prestigious lecture. He found cohabitation was incapable of providing these benefits, he said, because, "men settle down when they get married and if they fail to get married, they fail to settle down."
And settled-down men work more, earn more, save more, and spend more money on their families than on themselves. Married men are also dramatically less likely to abuse their wives and children than men of any other relational status. Marriage boosts the well-being of women as well in nearly every important measure of well-being.
The evidence is impossible to ignore or explain away. Marriage drives well-being and upward mobility. The absence of marriage drives it down. Any smart poverty alleviation program cannot ignore this.
And for Christians, the research enriches our reading of two of God's earliest and most profound statements about humanity and marriage. First, "It is not good for the man to be alone." Second, "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife." As we are created as an icon of the Trinitarian God in the world, we're made deeply and mysteriously for one another. And just as Jesus yearns deeply for his bride, it is very natural and deep in our wiring for us to yearn for a spouse. It is in our God-imaging nature to do so. No wonder marriage boosts our well-being in such important and diverse ways.
Such a truth is so evident that even some sociologists grasp it. Will the church?
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family and the author of The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage (Moody, 2011).
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