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This week I want to talk about the importance of marriage to society. Colleagues at the Institute for American Values in New York City have published an updated edition of their excellent research on marriage and family titled Why Marriage Matters.

The publication is like a CliffsNotes version of mountains of research on marriage and its effects on men, women and children. Some of the most prominent family scholars in the nation are co-authors of this report – scholars such as Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia, David Popenoe at Rutgers University and the grande dame of research regarding the negative effects of divorce on children, Judith Wallerstein at the University of California at Berkeley.

The new, third edition of Why Marriage Matters highlights the negative effects of cohabitation – unmarried couples living together. The report states that,

“The rise of cohabiting households with children is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s family lives. … Now, approximately 24 percent of the nation’s children are born to cohabiting couples, which means that more children are currently born to cohabiting couples than to single mothers. Another 20 percent or so of children spend time in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult at some point later in their childhood, often after their parents’ marriage breaks down. This means that more than four in ten children are exposed to a cohabiting relationship.”

The new Why Marriage Matters also highlights several new research findings. First, children are less likely to thrive in cohabiting households compared to intact, married families. Children in cohabiting households do about as poorly as children living in single-parent families. And, when it comes to abuse, recent federal data indicate that children in cohabiting households are markedly more likely to be physically, sexually and emotionally abused than children in intact, married families and single-parent families.

Cohabiting couples who have a child together are more than twice as likely to break up before their child turns 12, compared to couples who are married.

Second, family instability is generally bad for children. Multiple transitions in and out of marriage are on the rise and are linked to higher reports of school failure, behavioral problems, drug use, and loneliness.

Third, what scholars refer to as “complex households” are on the rise. These are households characterized by half-siblings, stepsiblings, step-parents, stepchildren or people completely unrelated to the child in any way. Many of these kids suffer disproportionate health problems and problems in school, even after controlling for factors such as education, income and race.

Most importantly, in my mind, is that this report emphasizes that marriage is an important public good. The authors admit that “marriage is not a panacea for all social ills” but go on to say that “whether we succeed or fail in building a healthy marriage culture is a clearly a matter of legitimate public concern and an issue of paramount importance if we wish to reverse the marginalization of the most vulnerable members of our society: the working class, the poor, minorities and children.”

Sutherland Institute is mailing a copy of Why Marriage Matters to every state and local elected official in Utah. Marriage does matter. And Utah’s elected officials ought not to dismiss family policy as the realm of private affairs.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.

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