Sunday 11 December 2016

Examining the link between Marriage and poverty

Published 21/06/2016 | 02:30

Marriage is declining in large swathes of the population in the Western World.
Marriage is declining in large swathes of the population in the Western World.

A troubling phenomenon is emerging across the US as sociologists confront the new reality that marriage is becoming a class-bound institution. There, 30pc of the population are thriving - they enjoy a reasonably well-paid job and good career prospects, their lives are satisfying and most are married. They and their children aspire to and usually achieve their goal of getting a degree.

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The remaining 70pc have a different profile. They do not have careers and their income is low. Their social mobility is static or downward. Their family structure differs also in that marriage is much less common.

It is of course unclear whether these features are the causes or the result of the class divide. Some 100 family scholars came together in 2015, of whom David Blankenhorn, President of the Institute of American Values, was one. Their objective was to examine the role of family structure and they concluded that "American marriage today is a class-based and class propagating institution".

Blankenhorn is the author to the preface of a report published a few days ago by the Iona Institute, of which I am a patron. The purpose of this was to examine if marriage patterns in Ireland are showing the same trends as in the US. Popular opinion has it that marriage is still very popular in Ireland - after all over 22,000 couples married in 2015, compared to 16,000 in 1996. However, when we examine the rate per 1,000 of the population, there is a different picture. In 1973 the rate was 7.5 per 1000 and in 2014, 4.8 per 1000.

Data from the 2011 census, presented in our report, showed 65.7pc of those in the professional group (social class A) were married compared to 31.8pc in the unskilled group (social class I). Cohabitation is broadly similar across socio-economic groups ranging from 13.2pc down to 10.2pc while lone parenting was at 4.1pc in group A and 9.4pc in group I.

So, the pattern with regard to marriage is similar in Ireland to other English-speaking countries with the exception of divorce, which remains low in Ireland by EU standards.

What the cause of this trend is remains unclear, but one possibility is that the social welfare system may be creating an impediment to marriage. The Department of Social Protection found in 2008 that a couple, one a single mother and a partner on jobseekers allowance, would be disadvantaged financially if living together while their joint income would be almost €70 higher if living apart.

Another explanation might be that attitudes to marriage have changed, with many seeing marriage as conferring no particular benefits on society and some regarding it as patriarchal.

Yet, why this should preferentially deter the lower socio-economic groups is unclear since these ideas are more likely to dominate among those attending third-level institutions, yet this is the group that continues to marry in large numbers.

A stimulating book on this topic is Robert Putnam's Our Kids. Putnam, recognised as a "public intellectual", has drawn attention to the increasing disparity between the social classes in a variety of measures such as school sports, obesity, maternal employment, single parenthood, financial stress, college graduation, church attendance and friendship networks.

Like the other writers on this topic he is unsure of the cause, but suggests that changes in industry, replacing unskilled workers on the manufacturing lines with robots, has created mass unemployment and the collapse of the working-class family.

Does it matter that marriage is declining in large swathes of the population in the Western World? It matters at several levels. The first is that we need to find out why certain socio-economic groups are deterred from marriage. The Marriage Opportunity Council in the US has been established to examine this question.

We know that there is a relationship between marriage and poverty and according to Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institute (a liberal-leaning think tank in the US) if the marriage rate in 2001 was the same as in 1970, the poverty rate would have been 20-30pc lower than its actual rate.

Open, a lone parent support organisation in Ireland, says that over a quarter of adults and children in one-parent households in Ireland are at risk of poverty. Finally, poverty is associated with increased rates of mental illness, especially depressive illness and anxiety disorders.

Thus it is in everybody's interest to begin a conversation about marriage, poverty and the wider ramifications on society before an atomised, disengaged and angry subgroup rears its head in our cities, as forecast by Putnam.

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