(by David Paul Deavel)
September 27, 2012
I hear it a lot, from non-Catholics and even Catholics: “Why doesn’t the Church spend more time fighting poverty and less time telling people what kind of family is best? Quit spending time on an outdated ideal of marriage and feed the hungry, clothe the naked and take care of the sick.”
One answer is to point out that the Church, speaking of her simply as an institutional structure, already does a great deal of work with the hungry, naked and sick. It’s rightly said that the Catholic Church is the largest social service agency in the world.
A deeper answer is that marriage and poverty are, indeed, tightly tied together in the real world. The Church isn’t interested in stable marriages simply out of nostalgia for an era of “Leave it to Beaver” perfection. In 2,000 years, the Church has had a lot of experience with family structures of all kinds. Both revelation and reasoning, derived from that experience, lead to the conclusion that marriage is a key ingredient in warding off not only poverty but a whole host of other social ills.
Earlier this year, Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post titled, “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms.” In 1992 then Vice President Quayle had criticized the television sitcom “Murphy Brown” for its storyline glamorizing the title character’s decision to have a child outside of marriage. Sawhill writes that while the campaign speech kicked up a lot of dust at the time, today “Quayle’s words seem less controversial than prophetic.”
While the number of births to single mothers and cohabiting parents has mushroomed in the United States, so too has the number of studies from social scientists — across the left-to-right spectrum (the Brookings Institution being center-left) — showing that kids do best on a whole range of outcomes with their married, biological mothers and fathers.
Second best are children in divorced families (with little difference whether the divorced parents remarry — the benefits of married parents are largely absent from step-families). The worst outcomes are produced by children of never-married mothers — cohabitation also does not bring the same benefits marriage does in large part because of their fragility. As Sawhill and others have pointed out, half of cohabiting couples have separated by their fifth anniversary.
Sawhill observes that research she has done with colleague Adam Thomas indicates that if single mothers were matched with demographically similar unmarried men, the child poverty rate would fall by about 20 percent. Married mothers have significant economic benefits over single mothers that lead to significant economic advantages for their children. While government certainly has a role to play in helping single and divorced parents financially, Sawhill concludes that “no government program is likely to reduce child poverty as much as bringing back marriage as the preferable way of raising children.” (Sawhill favors subsidies or tax credits for child care as well as the earned income tax credit.)
But human flourishing is not just about economic benefits. Married biological parents don’t just produce fewer poor children; they produce children less likely to: drop out of school, get pregnant before marriage, attempt suicide, commit crimes, and have emotional or medical problems. Married two-parent biological families are not just about extra “economic input.” They are about flourishing.
In the name of Christ, the Church understands the messiness of life and accepts all people no matter what the state of their lives are. We are not a society of the perfect. But as a matter of duty, the Church keeps speaking in the public arena about marriage, divorce and cohabitation precisely because these issues mean so much in the fight to feed, clothe and heal a hurting world.
David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and adjunct professor in the department of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. He is a frequent contributor to the Minnesota Catholic Conference blog Unique for a Reason: why marriage matters (marriagematters.mncc.org).