The Marriage Foundation’s figures disprove their case

Family|August 24th 2015

At the weekend it was reported that new data analysed by the Marriage Foundation shows that marriage is increasingly the preserve of the rich, with the wealthy being four times more likely to marry than the poor. Chairman of the Marriage Foundation Sir Paul Coleridge responded to the figures by warning that while children from poorer households might be “superficially better off materially than the previous generation”, they face increasing disadvantage compared to their better off peers.

For those who don’t know, the Marriage Foundation was established in 2012 with the aim of championing marriage, which it considers is the best way to achieve “healthy stable relationships”. In particular, the Foundation believes that parents who do not marry are more likely to separate, thereby diminishing the wellbeing and life chances of their children.

But is it really the act of entering into a marriage that improves the chances of a couple staying together? And taking the argument a step further, is it really true that a child’s life chances are improved if their parents are married?

The Marriage Foundation obviously considers that its new research supports its case, but to my mind it does exactly the opposite.

As I’ve said here previously:

“… of course marriages last longer, but this is not the result of the couples signing a piece of paper. The fact of the matter is that for social or economic reasons, the ‘type’ of couples that get married are the type of couples that are more likely to remain together. If your relationship is less likely to last, entering into a marriage will not change that.”

In other words, it is the poorer social and economic position of the couple that makes it more likely that their relationship will not endure, not the fact that they have not married. The Marriage Foundation’s figures prove that this is so: it is no coincidence that poorer couples are both less likely to marry and less likely to stay together.

As for the argument that a child’s life chances are improved if their parents are married this, as I have also said previously, has been debunked by research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The research found that children born to married parents do, indeed, achieve better outcomes, on average, than children born into other family forms, including cohabiting unions, but this is simply due to the fact that more affluent and better educated couples were more likely to get married. The Marriage Foundation’s latest figures obviously confirm this: poverty rather than the fact that their parents did not marry is what will determine a child’s life chances.

In short, the Marriage Foundation has produced figures which exactly refute their case: marriage certificates are not important, economics is. So let us not get bogged down in these out-dated arguments over the value of marriage. Instead, what we should be concentrating on is reducing poverty and thereby improving life chances for all, especially the children.

Photo by Bev Sykes via Flickr

Author: Stowe Family Law

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Comment(1)

  1. Harry Benson says:

    Dear John, 
    I’m afraid you can’t get away with this tosh. It is definitely the case that selection plays a part in the reason some couples marry and some don’t. Both marriage rates and stability vary linearly with income (not poverty). And it is also true that the perceived cost of a wedding has become a real barrier to couples getting married, despite aspiring to do so. This deters those on lower income most, so that it is unsurprising income correlates with marriage. But this is far from the whole story. We did a survey a few years back that showed the biggest reason unmarried couples weren’t married was ‘cost of wedding’ for the men, yet ‘because he hasn’t asked’ for the women. Pretending that income and education is all is nonsense, flying in the face of published outcome studies and established theories about the role and nature of commitment, clarity, decision making, and signals in marriage. Also please don’t put so much weight on the over-controlled studies done by IFS that purport to explain away differences in outcome between married and cohabiting parents. We have shown their models included factors, such as relationship quality and planned birth, that correlate far more with being married than being an unmarried couple. In social science you can’t do that because you confuse cause with effect. In any case, if your theory is right that the relative stability of marriage is all about prior selection, you need to explain why (a) nine in ten higher earners still marry when they don’t need to, and (b) family breakdown has doubled since 1980, a period when education and income have actually improved, yet substantially fewer couples have married. Cause and correlation are always hard to disentangle in social science. But when faced with a social epidemic of family breakdown for which children pay the highest price of all, it behoves those of us who write about these things to represent the evidence fairly, accurately and responsibly. You have not. 
    With regards
    Harry Benson, research director, Marriage Foundation

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