Does Family Matter? Assessing Marriage photo: copyright Paul Toepfer Photography


1. Marriage: A panacea?

2. Good for the old folks?

3. Is bridal sweet?

4. Love for sale?

Photo: (c)Paul Toepfer Photography

Is the beneficial "marriage effect" independent of the characteristics of the people who marry? Or are the people who marry healthier, wealthier and wiser to begin with?

The bride-to-be beams at her dad. Did she just boost her odds of happiness down the road?

Cart first? Horse first?
sepia photo: happy newlyweds smile for camera In general, social science research shows that certain things go together. It's much harder to prove that Fact A causes Fact B. In the classic formulation, the rooster's crow does not cause the dawn, even if the nasty squawk is perfectly correlated with sunrise.

In our case, could the massive benefits of marriage simply reflect the type of individual who is willing and able to marry? Wouldn't healthier, wealthier people be more attractive to the opposite sex? Wouldn't people who had happy childhoods be more interested in marriage, where they could repeat their parent's brilliant child-raising tactics? Wouldn't mentally stable people bring a higher price -- and more proposals -- on the marriage market?

Although there are many reasons to suspect that such pre-existing conditions might exaggerate the benefits of marriage, could they explain all of the many benefits that researchers are finding?

Perhaps, says Frank Furstenberg Jr., a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied single mothers and their children in Baltimore for 30 years. He finds so many differences between married and non-married adults that he is dubious about attributing all of them to marriage itself. "The people who marry are more marriageable, and therefore they confer more benefits to the spouse; they bring more benefits to the marriage," he says.

Bride (in white) and dad (in tuxedo) smile at church entry.

"When marriage is stable and working well, we have every reason to believe it's good for the children," Furstenberg adds, "but the question is whether there is a large marriage effect that is independent of the characteristics of the people who marry. There, the evidence is much less secure. If there is some effect, that would not surprise me, but if there were no effect ... or if it were modest or negligible, that would not surprise me either."

Bah, carbuncle!
No way, José, responds Linda Waite of the University of Chicago. Although she agrees that correlations do not prove cause-and-effect, she says social science researchers have some tricks for nailing them down. One tactic is to compare people who are similar in every way except the characteristic being studied (in this case, marital status): "We hold constant race, age, education, where they live, religion, whether they had kids," Waite says, "and then ask, 'What are the chances [of a particular outcome] when in this marital state, and when in that marital state?'"

In other words, instead of comparing the benefits of marriage among all women, researchers would compare 40-something white, middle-class women from Dubuque, Iowa, who have graduated high-school but not college. With these key characteristics held constant, it's easier to compare, say, mental or physical health among woman who are married, never-married, divorced or widowed.

Graph shows poverty rates by marriage status.
A recent survey showed that almost four times as many mothers who had their first child outside marriage had incomes below the poverty line. Data from "Is Marriage a Panacea..." (see bibliography).

The best marital data comes from studies that have, over several decades, repeatedly questioned individuals about factors like drinking, mental health, or family income, then correlated the results with marital status. "You look statistically at their trajectory, and at changes that tend to happen to people who experience a marital transition," says Waite.

Even if you don't marry for money, getting hitched can pay off big! In marital studies, it's clear that some of the benefits of marriage are an outcome of characteristics that were present before marriage. Researchers call this the "selection effect," and it's a notoriously sticky wicket to study. And yet evidence seems to be piling up that while people with advantages tend to marry -- and that they get many further benefits from doing so.

Overall, it's safe to say that even many researchers who focus on social class and income rather than marriage itself believe that marriage does confer an additional advantage. As new studies continue to document the marital advantage, the most convincing factor, Waite says, "is that there is so much evidence. No one piece would be compelling, but taken together, the vast amount of work on physical health, mental health, earnings, career advancement, the huge amount on children... If it were just one study, it would just be interesting, and maybe fascinating, but what is compelling is that there's so much, and it's so consistent."

If marriage is good for men and women, should government push people to the hitching post?

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