| March 6, 2013

The Dismal Science Promises ‘Happily Ever After’

In February, the country celebrated National Marriage Week, and Oklahoma lawmakers and issue advocates took the opportunity to expound the striking statistical correlations between marriage and a variety of socially desirable outcomes.

As state Rep. Mark McCullough put it in a news release, “A growing body of research suggests that marriage is good for you. It improves your health, wealth, and longevity.”

Married individuals have lower rates of mortality than unmarried individuals, for example—about 50 percent lower among women and 250 percent lower among men, according to the release. They’re less likely to abuse alcohol or to engage in patently self-destructive behaviors. They report less depression, less anxiety, and lower levels of psychological distress than those who are single, divorced, or widowed, according to Social Causes of Psychological Distress, a study cited in the release.

Married couples are lucky in money as well as in love: By their fifties and sixties, they’re likely to have a net worth of nearly four times that of their divorced or never-married counterparts.

“Marriage is not just an emotional relationship, but an economic one,” Rep. McCullough summarized in the news release.

So, too, is the relationship between the relative health of marriage and the size of government.

The statistics establishing that truth are the dark underbelly of the statistics that confirm that marriage is beneficial for those who enter it. It’s not just that those who marry are healthier, wealthier, and longer-lived. It’s also that the children of unmarried parents are at risk for a host of social ills—problems government officials take it upon themselves to correct.

According to legislative studies conducted by Rep. McCullough, children whose parents divorce are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated. Those same children are also three times more likely to be expelled and to receive lower grades.

Perhaps it’s time we start making the connection: Oklahoma has one of the nation’s highest divorce rates—and it also has one of the highest rates of incarceration.

The cost of divorce to Oklahoma taxpayers is estimated to be $430 million annually, according to “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing.” Every Oklahoma taxpayer has a stake in the success of every Oklahoma marriage—especially every marriage that produces children.

Yet, even as we spend more and more taxpayer dollars on the criminal justice system and the public education system, we fail to address imbalances in our tax code and public assistance programs that favor unmarried parents over married parents. The order of priorities needs to be reversed.

None of this changes the fact that a certain amount of mystery lies at the heart of marriage. While statistics establish that a correlation between marriage and “happily ever after” does, in fact, exist, they don’t explain why—nor do they explain why some marriages succeed and some marriages fail.

They hint, though, that the truth of marriage lies somewhere in between the extremes of romance and economics: Self-interest does propel individuals into marriage, but marriage—when it lasts as it is supposed to do—draws out something higher and nobler, something more akin to love and selflessness, from those who enter it.

It’s the business of anyone who cares to shrink government to demonstrate that marriage is in the rational self-interest of stable adults, and it’s the business of anyone who cares to fortify marriage as an institution to demonstrate that the benefits of marriage are long-lasting only when the marriage is.

Tina Korbe Dzurisin is an OCPA research associate. Formerly a staff writer at The Heritage Foundation, she also served as associate editor of the conservative website

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