In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale was dispatched by English investors from the Virginia Company to determine what was going on in their new colony of Jamestown. Dale soon discovered the reason the outpost was not producing the tradable goods the investors had sent them to secure. It was simple, really: The workers just weren’t working very hard.
According to Dale’s official report, the men “were at their daily and usual works, bowling in the streets.” In other words, they were goofing off. They vowed to start their actual work “tomorrow,” which never seemed to arrive.
The workers were also living in squalor, not because they didn’t have resources, but because they felt fine doing so as long as they could have fun in the moment. You see, the colony was populated mostly by men. Investors thought women would just distract the men from their productivity. Thus, Dale found the colony essentially an impoverished frat party.
Gail Collins, in her book America’s Women, describes how this problem was solved: Women were sent to the new colony to become wives. “By hook or by crook,” Collins explains, the colony’s sponsors “were desperate to get females” to the New World, as “their ventures were in danger of being wrecked on the shoals of dissolute, irresponsible young manhood.”
It worked. As women arrived, the new husbands became better, more responsible and productive men. Their brides were not going to tolerate any more loafing around, so the men got to it — building homes, planting crops, hunting game and all the other things necessary to build a community. Behold the life-transforming — and therefore community-transforming — power of marriage.
What is marriage, really? Is it, as some believe, merely a personal and private matter, involving a husband and wife? No, the institution of marriage influences every meaningful aspect of a society. There is no nation anywhere that has found a way to establish safe, productive communities without marriage. And no other institution maintains the health and well-being of a community like marriage does. Indeed, many of today’s social challenges can never be resolved without first strengthening this beleaguered institution. These are sociological facts, proven through decades of research. Let’s explore just how rich and true this is.
For richer or poorer …
“Marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes,” Charles Murray explains in his book Coming Apart. Indeed, marriage is one of the most powerful dividers between the rich and the poor. The poor are not marrying like they did two decades or so ago, while the well-to-do in society are much more likely to marry.
Surprisingly, not marrying keeps people in poverty like few other factors. Isabel Sawhill, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institute, proclaimed several years ago that “the proliferation of single-parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970s.” Thus, marriage is a community’s single most powerful deterrent to child poverty.
Professor Bill Galston, one of President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy advisers, observed in the early 1990s that an American needs to do three things to avoid living in poverty: graduate from high school, marry before having a child and have that child after age 20. Only 8% of people who do so, he reported, will be poor, while 79% who fail to do all three will.
Sociologists now refer to these three things as the “success sequence,” the life decisions that most powerfully elevate one’s socio-economic status. And recent research from the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute reinforces the importance of the success sequence. Their findings show that working-class women are nearly three times more likely to have babies out of wedlock than upper-class women. Poor women are about five times more likely. These two groups are far less likely to be married overall and twice as likely to be cohabiting, suffering further from the inherent instability of living together without marriage.
These life decisions largely determine the types of neighborhoods people are able to choose to live in and the opportunities they will be able to provide for their children in terms of education, neighborhood safety, nutritionally healthy foods, health care and overall lifestyle. Numerous studies support this conclusion: Marriage is an essential and active ingredient in improving one’s overall life prospects, regardless of class, race or educational status.
Making men better
“Men settle down when they get married; and if they fail to get married, they fail to settle down.” That’s from Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof, in a prominent lecture more than a decade ago. Akerlof explains that marriage generates wealth largely because marriage molds men into producers, providers and savers. Singleness and cohabiting don’t.
This is precisely why every insurance company offers lower premiums on health and auto insurance to married men. It’s certainly not because insurance companies have a warm feeling in their hearts for married men. Their decision is solely pragmatic. They know that married men are different from their unmarried peers. “Married men are more attached to the labor force; they have less substance abuse, they commit less crime, are less likely to become the victims of crime, have better health, and are less accident prone,” Akerlof explains. Countless studies support Akerlof’s findings.
Marriage makes men better, and that in turn boosts the well-being of women and children in every important way. Married women are more likely to own a home and far less likely to be victims of domestic abuse. Children with married parents do better in school, having higher grades, fewer behavior problems and higher graduation rates.
No, marriage is certainly not just a personal, private matter. Marriage builds and maintains healthy societies. It changes lives for the better. Decades of research and the lives of real people make the case over and again every day.
Working for healthy, well-formed, enduring marriages is one of the most effective ways we can do the work of social justice. Great nations are built by strong marriages.
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2020 issue of Focus on the Family Magazine.