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Inequality, Marriage, and Divorce

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I wrote two books on divorce, and remain agog at how our culture has become increasingly blasé about it. With the Bezos’ and Gates’ divorces, it’s clear that money, power and every type of resource are no protections from family splits. So I was fascinated to come upon a 2016 article I’d saved from New York Times, titled “Marriage, Poverty and the Political Divide.”

The piece suggests that economic inequality is destructive to marriage. It discounts Sen. Marco Rubio’s assertion at the time that marriage can lift parents and children from poverty.

But it doesn’t talk about the real point–that the values of marriage shrink poverty rates, and it takes personal behavioral choices, not focusing on policies to eliminate “inequality,” to both support marriage and curb poverty.

Sen. Rubio based this pro-marriage remark on a Heritage Foundation report showing that 71% of families in poverty are headed by unmarried individuals. Of those who are not poor, 73% are headed by married couples. Married people are better off financially.

Makes sense. Certainly a couple pulling together can bring in more income than a single parent, and make what they have go further. Stay-at-home parents contribute by saving on day care and providing other services that make the family function.

One would hope that an absent parent would contribute to his child’s support. The trouble is, among the poor, this is infrequently the case. In 2011, only half of all custodial parents had a child support agreement. Those with child support agreements actually received only 62% of what they were due. Of all custodial parents receiving child support, 24% were in poverty. Thirty percent of custodial mothers live below the poverty line.

So how does inequality shape a couple’s future together? How does the fact someone else earns a lot more than you do harm your marriage? Not clear.

Writer Andrew L. Yarrow’s Times article claims “Poorer Americans already aspire to marriage at similar or higher rates than their higher-income counterparts, according to a 2012 UCLA study. But when they do marry, their marriages are much more likely to end in divorce.”

The piece neglects to mention that divorce not only correlates with poverty but also with education of the partners. The more education partners have, the more likely a couple will stay together, finds the Heritage Foundation. I’m not so sure the correlation remains as strong as it once was, unfortunately.

But education definitely correlates highly with income. In other words, those with the tenacity and ability to make it through college or advanced degrees more often have the tenacity and ability to both earn more money and form an enduring marriage.

This isn’t sinister “inequality,” or any kind of societal ill to be corrected by policy-makers. This is simple variation among individuals. Certain personal abilities, values and behaviors promote certain outcomes. It’s less a governmental problem than a personal problem, a values and behavioral problem. Individuals who exhibit characteristics that promote happy marriage can much more often sustain happy marriages.

The term “inequality” implies that something’s askew, that everyone would have the same positive outcomes were it not for unfairness. “Look at how the poor scramble to survive, while the rich buy $5,000 designer purses!” If you believe that all individuals begin with the same potential, it follows that only factors imposed by luck or malice stand in anyone’s way. And therefore laws and policies should remove those barriers. But if you look around, you notice that humans were not created with the same potentials, though we rightly offer everyone the same opportunities to maximize the potentials they have.

“Marriage is far from the magic bullet to end poverty that some conservatives claim,” says Melissa Boteach of the Center for American Progress in the Times piece.

Nobody says it’s magic, but being in a marriage is one of those opportunities that allows us to maximize our best selves. Says W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project, “Americans are more likely to realize the American dream if they get and stay married, and grow up in communities where marriage is stronger. Marriage fosters saving, facilitates economies of scale and encourages stability and family life, all things that are good for the average American’s pocketbook.”

In other words, the same values that support marriage support financial success. So it seems Sen. Rubio is right—the route out of poverty could be living the commitment and values marriage requires.

Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of seven books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. She can be seen in her Seattle suburb walking (and picking up litter) with her husband, author and radio host Michael Medved, and at least some of their three children and four toddler grandchildren. Reach her at DianeMedved.com.

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