Government Sucks at Promoting Marriage

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By Karol Markowicz | 9:35 am, May 2, 2017

Marriage is the best, science says so.

Why then has there been such a steady drop in marriage rates that it’s being deemed a “crisis” in America? Last week, a Pew Research Center analysis of IRS tax administration data found that marriage rates in America continue to fall and the numbers have been trending this way for years.

Every study looking at marriage rates in America shows it’s on the decline. The National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR) at Bowling Green State University found that marriage is at its lowest rate in over a century. There’s been a 60% drop in marriage rates since 1970. That’s a sharp downward turn for an institution with magical health, wealth and happiness properties.

The myriad benefits of marriage couldn’t be clearer. In February, the Institute of Family Studies added to the pile of evidence on marriage benefits, when its study reported that marriage was good for men. It made them richer, healthier and happier.

Indeed, every study of marriage has found that getting leg-shackled makes all aspects of life better. Married people have more frequent and better sex.  Marriage increases longevity, decreases depression. Marriage makes you smarter. Your net worth increases. Writing in National Review, the authors of the Institute of Family Studies marriage study noted “the typical 50-something married guy has three times the assets of his unmarried peer, about $167,000 to $49,000.”

Marriage is good for you and yet fewer and fewer people are getting hitched. Why? The drop in marriage rates coincides with government promotion of marriage.

Once the government got involved in urging people to get and stay married, the opposite started happening with greater frequency. The NCFMR has a chart showing how as marriage promotion spending went up, marriage rates went down.

The tax breaks for married couples have also produced no results. Few people decide to contractually bind themselves to another person for eternity because of the tax breaks, it seems. And those breaks are questionable anyway as after a certain income the “break” becomes a penalty. If there’s one thing the government knows how to do, it’s punish success.

Conservatives of every stripe tend to believe that government is generally inept, it’s part of the general philosophy of cutting the size of government and limiting its scope. Yet when it comes to marriage they somehow still accept that a government role is necessary.

The George W. Bush administration spent $300 million dollars a year on the “Healthy Marriage Initiative” which did little beyond line the pockets of organizations that hold “relationship education classes.” The Obama administration kept the program going with but shifted the focus to fatherhood. A study of the program found that it did very little to help sustain the marriages of the couples enrolled and “did not translate into significant impacts on marital stability” nor “into substantial impacts on coparenting, parenting, or outcomes for children.”

Writing in the New York Times in 2014, Ross Douthat defended government’s role in marriage promotion saying “there’s room for a pro-family agenda that tries to lighten burdens on parents and encourage bourgeois virtues without aspiring to spark some kind of instantaneous cultural revolution. “

Ryan T. Anderson is a Senior Research Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and writes often about the importance of traditional marriage in society. In a 2012 piece for Ricochet, Anderson defended government’s role in marriage, writing “Getting government out of the civil marriage business would be a catastrophe for limited government. Abolishing civil marriage would weaken social support for its norms. Over time, the law shapes what people think marriage is—which in turn affects how current and future spouses act. As countless studies show, absentee fathers and out-of-wedlock births bring a train of social pathologies, and greater demand for policing and social services.”

While the second part of this is true, children of intact families do better than children of broken homes, government’s long-running support for marriage has done nothing but weaken it. The 60% drop in marriage has been unaffected by government playing a strong role in promoting marriage. This is at least in part because government is intrinsically uncool and unglamorous.

There’s nothing romantic in their promotion of marriage. It’s not about love. Despite all the oft-cited benefits of marriage, few are getting married because they want to live longer or save more money. Romantic love remains the impetus for modern weddings. The government is long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, failing schools, boondoggle projects, faceless bureaucrats. Marriage doesn’t fit with their repertoire.

In her book “The Power of Glamour,” Virginia Postrel notes that in the films of the 1930’s, divorce was considered very glamorous. Marriage was at times “a loveless prison” while divorce was akin to “wearing evening gowns and making cocktails in silver shakers,” a “habit of the fictional rich.” But now divorce is commonplace and the reality isn’t so much cocktails and gowns as lonely apartments and having the kids every other weekend. And while marriage may not be glamorous either, government seminars on strengthening marriage only make marriage seem more like a drudging task. Less cocktails in silver shakers, more beer cans strewn on a floor.

“Marriage is no longer compulsory,” Dr. Susan Brown, co-director of the NCFMR, told Science Daily. “It’s just one of an array of options. Increasingly, many couples choose to cohabit and still others prefer to remain single.”

Bang up job on the marriage encouragement, government.

After the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage, Senator Rand Paul noted in Time Magazine:  “Since government has been involved in marriage, they have done what they always do — taxed it, regulated it, and now redefined it. It is hard to argue that government’s involvement in marriage has made it better, a fact also not surprising to those who believe government does little right.”

Correlation does not equal causation, of course, but what has happened with marriage since the time the government has gotten involved in saving it is in line with what conservatives believe happens when government gets involved in anything: it gets worse.

Getting government out of the marriage business would be good for marriage. For those who care about marriage rates, the rallying cry to the government should be: stop helping.