Thursday, December 09, 2010

Marriage, Education, and the Economy

Marriage certificateAfter hearing a recent news report on NPR early this week, I started writing what would ultimately become this article.  This morning, I found a different, but topically-related, post on Scot McKnight's blog, which helped me to refocus my thoughts into something I was finally able to post.

The NPR report discussed the reality that more couples are choosing to have children without getting married.  This in itself didn't surprise me too much, although I was struck by the fact that this issue was discussed from an economic angle rather than the usual religious angle that I often hear when this topic comes up.  Specifically, it suggested a link between education and deciding not to marry despite having children.  The report seems to infer that economic realities (can a parent get a job that pays enough to afford marriage and/or divorce should things go wrong?) are the real issue.  Unfortunately, the NPR report makes this inference based more on anecdotal evidence than on anything actually supplied by the data, which was mostly about the education, not the economics.

McKnight's entry also discusses the decline of marriage in connection with educational factors.  He summarizes the report he links to as suggesting the following:
  1. Marriage is an emerging dividing line between America’s moderately educated middle and those with college degrees.
  2. Marital quality is declining for the moderately educated middle but not for their highly educated peers.
  3. Divorce rates are up for moderately educated Americans, relative to those who are highly educated.
  4. The moderately educated middle is dramatically more likely than highly educated Americans to have children outside of marriage.
  5. The children of highly educated parents are now more likely than in the recent past to be living with their mother and father, while children with moderately educated parents are far less likely to be living with their mother and father.
Unlike the NPR report, McKnight makes no attempt to argue from education to economics, but he seems to be working from the same root data, which comes from "The National Marriage Project" via the University of Virginian.  Basically, the line seems to be between those who obtain a four-year college degree and those who only get a high school diploma.

I am actually glad to see these kinds of discussions of marriage that argue on the basis of secular data rather than any attempt at religious argument or moralizing.  It's not that I don't think that marriage is a sacred institution.  I do very much.  But if we as Christians are going to decry the erosion of marriage in our society, yet we only discuss marriage's importance for religious reasons, we have no reason to expect that non-religious people should listen to our arguments.  Or, to perhaps turn that around just a bit, if we only criticize people who choose to have children without getting married on religious grounds ("they're disobeying God," etc), why should they care that we disapprove?

Although I would rather see a new study more explicitly linked to economics before making this case too strongly, I do think the argument about economic status could be important.  As one person in the NPR report said: "Time was, a man could go from high school to a well-paying, secure factory job. No more."  While one of the mothers depicted in the article does comment on the old "marriage as a piece of paper" chestnut, but it was surprisingly NOT to just to argue that marriage is meaningless, but that it's something of comparatively low (but not non-existent, as I'll get to in a moment) meaning that costs a lot of money!   Unfortunately, that cost (as cited by the person interviewed) was particularly seen on the divorce end.  It's "a piece of paper that costs a lot of money to change."  Even with a child already present, the view does indeed seem to be one that asks "what if I want out?" rather than one expecting marriage to be permanent.

And the NPR article suggests that this attitude seems to ensure that relationships between couples with children, yet who remain unmarried, are not permanent.  These couples are twice as likely as married couples to split up before the children are five years old.

The data cited by McKnight brings up some interesting questions.  As he says "What... should/could be done?" If the decision to enter into marriage is linked to the amount of education one receives, and if there is any desire to see more couples with children actually make the commitment to marriage, then it stands to reason that we want to encourage people to get more education.  But encouraging people to get education, itself, has economic implications.  College is expensive!  I'm not necessarily trying to argue that college should be free, or where any more money to make education less expensive should come from, but this is clearly something that Christians who care about making sure that children grow up in homes with both parents should be looking into.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the NPR report, however, were the ways in which it was demonstrated that marriage (or, at least, having a wedding) continues to be held in high esteem even among these obviously secular couples.  For example, one person suggested that she did want to get married (and, in this instance, was actually engaged when she got pregnant), but apparently didn't consider getting the marriage license at the courthouse as an option.  Although it is not stated explicitly, it is implied that she wanted the trappings of a full ceremony, and just getting the license wasn't enough.

If even non-religious people see marriage as having importance, I think we do have hope of being able to work out some kind of solution.  The question becomes, what will actually work?

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