This is a continuation from an earlier post. You might wish to start reading there to pick up some of the background.
In that last post I said that what troubled me was the suggestion that if you have (or are going to have) children, you ought to get married. That was really a rather over-simplified. Let me expand and explain.
First I need to say a bit more about the benefits of marriage. There can be substantial benefits associated with being married. The court identifies material benefits, legal protections and social support resulting from marriage. (Finding 39, page 70.) It also notes that marriage benefits both spouses by promoting physical and psychological health (#38, page 69.)
There are really two different things going on here. First, some material benefits are provided to exclusively to married couples. For example, access to health care via a spouse’s health plan or preferential tax treatment. (I know that tax treatment of married couples is not always beneficial. But sometimes it is. As I understand it, it depends on the distribution of income-earning within the household.) For these benefits, by definition if you are married you get them and if you are not, then you do not. They are clearly (and by design) associated with marriage.
To the extent a married couple receives these sorts of benefits they also flow, at least to some degree, to their children. Thus, children of married parents are better off in some regards than children of unmarried parents. To put it the other way around, children of unmarried parents are at a disadvantage. (It might be helpful to recall that there are two distinct subcategories of unmarried parents–single parents and parents who are unmarried couples. The point I just made is really most relevant to the latter category, I think.)
Why is this okay? Why should it be that children whose parents happen to marry get more of these sorts of benefits than children whose parents don’t marry?
I suppose the answer is that we want people to get married (perhaps especially people with children) and so we offer an incentive to marry, which is to say a disincentive to remain unmarried. But why do we want them to get married in the first place? You cannot say “in order to get these benefits” because that’s just circular. If we offered the same benefits to unmarried parents, the advantage of marrying would go away. So as to this type of benefit, it seems fair to say this is simply the carrot/stick we use to encourage good behavior, not the explanation for why the good behavior is good.
Now there is a second type of benefit to consider–the one in finding 38, page 69:
“Marriage benefits both spouses by promoting physical and psychological well-being. Married individuals are less likely to engage in behaviors detrimental to health, like smoking or drinking heavily. Married individuals live longer on average than unmarried individuals.”
These benefits are not the result of conscious action by the government or employer. Instead, they are presented as things that flow from marriage, more in the nature of natural consequences.
This leads me to two questions. First, is it clear that marriage causes the described beneficial behaviors? It seems to me possible that a heavy drinker is less likely to be married because he/she is a heavy drinker. (I’m assuming here that heavy drinkers might be less able to maintain the relationship that, at least in theory, lies at the heart of marriage.) Thus, fewer heavy drinkers are likely to be married and more heavy drinkers are likely to be unmarried. You could end up with the same statistical pattern (married people less likely to be heavy drinkers).
Perhaps a more concise way of raising my point would be to ask whether there is a causal connection here. Does marriage cause people to become less-heavy drinkers? If you have someone who is a heavy drinker and you get them married, is it more likely they will stop drinking heavily?
You might say I’ve picked on an easy one with heavy drinking, and perhaps I have. But I’ll stand by my general question. I do wonder if the studies cited explain causation or if they only show correlation.
Second, I’m wary of averages. (“Married individuals on average live longer than unmarried individuals.”) There must be an enormous range of lifespans among both married and unmarried individuals. Thus, many unmarried individuals live longer than many married individuals.
It’s not that I deny that there really is some effect here. I gather there is and I gather it is thought to be the result of both self-selection (healthier people marry) and what is called the sheltering effect of marriage.
My concern is that people (generally) will take the wrong message from all this. If you are a happily unmarried parent should you get married? Will you live longer if you do? Will you be happier? I don’t think any of that is particularly likely to follow for an individual. Of course, if a happily unmarried parent wishes to get married, they should do so. But they ought not feel that they need to do so for the good of their child.