Published 18 May 2018
This weekend, an estimated three billion people worldwide will sit in front of their TV or computer screens as they witness one of the most public weddings since 2011 – the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. (2011 was brother William’s wedding.)
Nobody seems to be asking why are they bothering to get married, or suggesting they should just live together for a few years and ‘test the water’. Very few are saying that the ceremony will be pointless and unnecessary. This weekend will be a celebration of marriage. A fairytale. A dream that many still aspire to.
Yet here at home, according to statistics just released, 20,607 couples got married in New Zealand last year. The general marriage rate in 2017 was just 10.9 per 1,000 people aged 16 years and over. This is around just one-quarter of the 1971 peak, when the rate reached 45.5.
We should be concerned that marriage rates are at an all-time low. The weakening of marriage is one of the most important social issues we are facing.
The declining marriage rate is a disturbing link to social problems in our society including the risk of child abuse, domestic violence, teen crime and child poverty.
But whenever marriage is promoted, it has often been labelled as an attack on solo or divorced parents, and that has kept us from recognising the qualitative benefits of marriage which have been discovered from decades of research. In virtually every category that social science has measured, children and adults do better when parents get married and stay married – provided there is no presence of high conflict or violence.
This is not a criticism of solo parents. It simply acknowledges the benefits of the institution of marriage.
There are certain family structures in which children will be far more vulnerable. Suspension of fact is an abrogation of our collective responsibility to children.
A 2016 report on child abuse in New Zealand and its causes argued that the ‘elephant in the room’ is family structure, and that the growth of child abuse has accompanied a reduction in marriage and an increase in cohabiting and single-parent families.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released their Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect report to Congress. It said children living with their married biological parents universally had the lowest rate of abuse, whereas those living with a single parent who had a cohabiting partner in the household had the highest rate in all maltreatment categories.
The statistics are clear. Children being raised by their married biological parents are by far the safest from violence – and so too are the adults.
In 2016, the report “Child Poverty and Family Structure: What is the evidence telling us?” examined household incomes and family structure from the early 1960s through to current day, and found that while unemployment, low wages, high housing costs and insufficient social security benefits are consistently blamed for child poverty, a major culprit – if not the major culprit – is family malformation, that is, a lack of two married committed parents.
A 2008 report by the NZ Institute of Economic Research estimated that the fiscal cost to the New Zealand taxpayer of family breakdown and decreasing marriage rates is at least $1 billion per year and has cost approximately $8 billion over the previous decade.
According to Why Marriage Matters – a report co-authored by 13 leading social-science scholars, including Professor William Galston, a domestic policy adviser to the Clinton administration – parental divorce or non-marriage appears to increase children’s risk of school failure, the risk of suicide, psychological distress, and most significantly, delinquent and criminal behaviour.
The Heritage Foundation, an influential US research institute, published an analysis of social science literature over 30 years showing that the rise in violent crime parallels the rise in families abandoned by fathers. The Heritage Foundation research found that while the finger often gets pointed at certain racial groups, the real variable is not race but family structure. It’s just that the incidence of broken families is much higher in the racial groups often cited – a similar finding to the 2016 New Zealand report mentioned earlier.
Cohabitation in the 21st Century released in 2011 by British social reform organisation the Jubilee Centre found that married couples with children are 10 times more likely to stay together than defacto couples – and marriages last an average of four years longer if partners haven’t lived together before getting married.
On average, children raised by their biological parents who are married have the best outcomes in health, education and income, and by far the lowest involvement with the criminal justice system. Marriage – whether preceded by a period of cohabitation or not – remains the more stable form of relationship.
That’s why marriage is needed and why marriage matters. It’s not simplistic or intolerance. And it’s not unrealistic to teach our young and future generations that the best environment for them as parents, and for their children, is within marriage.
Marriage isn’t perfect, but we ignore its benefits at our peril. Governments should focus on and encourage and support what works. Our children deserve this investment in their safety and protection.
Bob McCoskrie is National Director of Family First NZ and has been married for 28 years.