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By Andrea Mrozek
and Peter Jon Mitchell
You could sugar-coat the newly-released 2016 Census data on families, households and marital status by applauding the rise of family diversity in Canada. Yet family diversity is so often a euphemism for family breakdown, which is something that’s generally painful.
A more honest take on the Statistics Canada data is that the nation’s 40-plus-year decline in marriage rates continues, signifying a cultural shift that hurts our children, culture and economy. Worse, it’s not what Canadians want.
In 2001, married couples made up 84 per cent of all couples. Today, that number is 78.7 per cent. As marriage has declined, more couples choose to live together outside of marriage. Shacking up, as it was once known, described the living arrangements of 16.4 per cent of all couples in 2001. That has risen to 21 per cent of all couples today.
Family stability and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Sociologists writing in the Journal of Marriage and Family note that a lack of marriage and the growth in cohabitation, alongside the growing trend of single parenting, portends growth in family instability.
In World Family Map 2017, sociologists Brad Wilcox and Laurie DeRose report that American children in cohabiting families are 15 to 31 per cent more likely to experience a parental split by age 12 than children growing up in families with married parents (depending on their mother’s education level). The resulting instability may mean children have to move frequently or adjust to a parent’s new partner living in the home. Stick-handling parents’ squabbles can be a time-consuming reality for the children of divorce.
Growing up in an intact married home increases the likelihood of children getting good grades and graduating from high school and college, even when accounting for socio-economic factors. Having married parents is also correlated with a lower likelihood of children participating in risky behaviours, like drug abuse or early sexual initiation. Happily, many great kids from non-married parent homes become successful adults. But this doesn’t change the fact that adult relationship decisions affect children.
Many will counter that marriage isn’t all that stable. Don’t half of them end in divorce? Not quite. The most recent data on divorce, from 2008, suggests the rate is closer to 38 per cent.
Marriage isn’t perfect, it’s just a safer family form in which to raise children and we know that healthy marriages have measurable, positive outcomes for adults. Numerous studies indicate that people in high-quality marriages tend to be at lower risk of suffering a heart attack and have better odds of surviving one. The happily married are also more likely to recover from illness, including cancer, and lead healthier lives.
This doesn’t mean marriage is a panacea for social problems. However, stable marriages are a public good. When marriages dissolve, there are emotional and financial implications for family members that can reverberate through the wider community. One estimate by Andrea Mrozek and researcher Rebecca Walberg suggests that the public cost of family breakdown in Canada is about $7 billion annually. That’s the equivalent of hosting the Vancouver Winter Olympics every year.
The diminishing marriage numbers confirm a well-known cultural shift. When couples wed 40 years ago, they were typically starting out in life together. Marriage served as a foundation on which other experiences, such as careers, homeownership and children rested. Today, marriage is one option among many. On average, we marry later in life, often after living together. More of us have children or purchase a home before tying the knot. The same trends are evident across the globe.
Even so, last year a Nanos Research poll found that 78 per cent of Canadians view marriage as a positive aspect of family life. We just don’t seem to know how to get there.
Given that a healthy marriage contributes to family stability, there’s a need for recovery of the institution. Marriage has declined in western countries for many economic and social reasons, making it difficult to reverse the trends.
We know marriage tends to thrive in communities where couples’ relationships serve as models for the next generation, and receive support from other institutions and networks. The more healthy marriages young Canadians see and experience, the better.
And it would help to make a deliberate and clear distinction between marriage and cohabitation in popular culture – maybe even in tax policy.
We should pay attention to family stability. We need to recognize the contribution that a healthy marriage culture makes to building thriving societies, so that we can work to reverse some of our failing family trends.
Andrea Mrozek is program director of Cardus Family. Peter Jon Mitchell is senior researcher at Cardus.
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