This essay is part of our collection on common good economics. Read related pieces here.
Even if all the market reforms of the Washington think tanks, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes Magazine were enacted, we’d still need to kiss the Great American Economy goodbye. Below the level of economic policy lies a society that is producing fewer people capable of hard work, especially married men with children. As the retreat from marriage continues apace, there are fewer and fewer of these men, resulting in a slowly, permanently decelerating economy.
When men get married, their sense of responsibility and drive to provide gives them the incentive to work much harder. This translates into an average 27-percent increase in their productivity and income. With the retreat from marriage, instead of this “marriage premium,” we get more single men (who work the least), more cohabiting men (who work less than married men), and more divorced men (who fall between the singles and cohabiters).
All this is visible in the changing work patterns of our country, resulting in real macro-economic consequences. Fifty years ago family life and the economy were quite different.
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Around 1960, just prior to the sexual revolution, the United States was the world’s heavyweight champion in economic productivity and earnings. Today we can still lift a lot, but, to extend the metaphor, we are moving down to the middleweight class. My colleague Dr. Henry Potrykus has shown that divorce alone has reduced the annual growth rate of the economy by at least one sixth since the mid-1980s, which with its compounding effect is by now quite significant.
No matter which way you look at it—through the lens of income, savings, or poverty—marriage is the great engine of the economy, with every household a building block that either contributes or takes away, millions of times over. Put all these families together, and we have the team that runs the American economy.
What National Data Show About Marriage, Children, and the Economy
A productive household does not simply happen when parents beget a child. The foundation for a productive household begins with marriage. Other arrangements cannot measure up, not for the child, not for the couple, not for society, and certainly not for the economy.
Cohabitation does not take the place of marriage, and there are very strong indications that cohabitation may rival single parenthood as the largest generator of child poverty, while divorce is the cause of most women and children entering poverty in any given year. If marriage makes the world and economy go ’round, these newer family structures truncate productivity, and society begins to limp along.
Within the married household, children are like tender young plants that thrive on the unity and love of their father and mother, but wilt when they fight or bicker. And tragically, the budding capacities of children are further weakened when their parents reject each other, either through divorce, or separation, or simply walking away from each other as in single parenthood.
For American children, the situation is dire. More than half of our seventeen-year-olds (54 percent) have such parental rejection in their history, psyche, and heart. Only 46 percent of American teenagers at age seventeen have lived their whole life in an intact married family.
Among African Americans, only 17 percent come from families with always-intact married parents. By comparison, 90 percent of African American families were intact when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941.
Where marriage is concerned, Asian Americans are our strongest ethnic group (only 38 percent of Asian American children grow up without married parents), and yet they are now in much the same marriage situation that African Americans were in two generations ago, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan caused an uproar in 1965 with his prescient work, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. To situate the Asian American family in the history of the retreat from marriage, America’s strongest ethnic family group is as strong now as our present weakest ethnic family group was in the 1960s.
Love, not rejection, gives strength to a child and a child’s family. For children whose parents have always been married, life is quantitatively better: They have higher GPAs, greater educational attainment, longer and happier lives, and a better chance at marriage.
Rejection between parents weakens children, slows them down, and lowers their potential. Though the extent to which children are affected varies from child to child, as a demographic they get lower grades, receive less education, have poorer mental health, are less employed, are less likely to be happily married, and will live shorter lives.
Even without knowing the family history of employees, employers know the difference between a hardworking, honest, cheerful young employee and one who lacks these qualities, and choose accordingly. Human resource departments are well aware of the differences between the work ethics of young single men and married men with children. They see the different rates of absenteeism (especially before or after weekends), who is on time to work, and who is accident-prone.
Stockbrokers and life-insurance salesmen know where strength lies too: Their biggest markets are married couples, though Wall Street has yet to figure out the macro-economic implications.
Adding all this together, the conclusion (visible in the federal data) is that married families with children are the main source of the higher income, education, and productivity that grows the economy and its capital.
Interestingly, and today controversially, chastity—sexual abstinence until marriage and lifelong monogamy thereafter—significantly strengthens marriages and therefore the economy. Research on the pathways to divorce shows this.
Heritage Foundation research has shown the relationship between the number of multiple sexual partners and the probability of seeking divorce. Always-monogamous women have much more stable marriages. For women ages thirty to forty-four, one non-marital sexual partner (usually before marriage) correlates with a huge drop in the likelihood of staying married, from 80 percent for the monogamous woman, down to 54 percent for the one-extra-partner woman.
Two sexual partners other than the husband (and again, most frequently before marriage) is correlated with a further drop in stability, giving the woman’s marriage a 44-percent chance of lasting stability. In other words, by a woman’s early forties, two sexual partners before marriage is correlated with more than a 50-percent chance of divorce.
Coincidentally, that figure (44 percent) is close to the present rate of children in intact married families (46 percent). And the current average number of sexual partners for unmarried women in their early twenties is two. A generation of unchaste twenty-year-olds today may be looking at a 44-percent chance of stable marriage in the future, or even less—should they choose to remain on their present course.
Who would ever have thought that chastity is tied to the growth rate of the American economy? Each new sexual partner in the teens and twenties (prior to marriage) notches down the economy in the long run, microscopically at first, but multiplied tens of millions of times, it adds up to serious money over time.
Besides marriage, the other foundational institution that fosters human flourishing is religion. The effects of religious worship are dramatically visible in U.S. national survey correlational studies and increasingly in causational studies in areas like education, crime reduction, and health. Religious practice and prayer are good for marriage, but when marriage and worship are combined in family life, children thrive even more, and a decade or two later the economy experiences the benefits when those children are more productive earners.
When marriage and worship are united with a school that upholds the same fundamental ideals, a small community is formed, eminently capable of raising children to their optimum capacities. Family, church, and school are the three basic people-forming institutions, and it is no wonder that they produce the best results when they cooperate.
Unsurprisingly, we see these results in the national data. Home-schooled children thrive the most (and they come, overwhelmingly, from intact, married, religious families); children in private religious schools come next, and children in public schools after them.
Thus the core strategy for forming great workers for the economy is growing intact married families who are united in worship through their community of belief and send their children to schools that inculcate those values and beliefs. Not only does that produce the greatest average human capital for the marketplace; it also produces the best citizens for the polis and the common good.
And from this strong family, other benefits abound: marriage, education, health, income, savings, longevity, and a society shielded from the many costs and sufferings of crime, addictions, sexual perversions, bad health, poverty, and abuse. While strong families will not fully obliterate all societal weakness, they massively reduce them.
Teaching, Worship, and Work: How Intact Families Preserve Societies
If all three of society’s people-forming institutions fail to deliver (and they are failing more and more), then the two instrumental institutions that build societies—the marketplace, which provides for material needs, and the government, which preserves order and peace—will also deliver less and less, and the delivery will be all the harder because workers will have increasingly less capacity.
The intact married family is where the tasks of these institutions are first learned, which ensures that these institutions are maintained by the rising generation.
The child learns about the marketplace when he first sees his parents taking care of the family’s material needs, earning, saving, and investing in the home and the children’s education. As the child grows, he starts giving his own contributions to these material needs through his own earnings, savings, and chores. He learns about government by seeing his parents cooperate closely to foster peace and order in the family, exercising the self-control needed for a united “governing body.”
But when parents divorce, children no longer learn these lessons. Working for the common good no longer exists for mother and father as a couple, and the family marketplace (income and capital) suffers very significantly, frequently pushing them into poverty. Children’s experience of marriage and family is clouded by major negative experiences and feelings, which lessen their prospects of a future happy marriage and family life. They are less inclined to stay in school and their religious worship decreases or ceases.
These five tasks or institutions—family, church, school, marketplace, and government—are fully reflected in and reinforced by the flourishing married family. They are fundamental, interconnected, and irreplaceable: Any one that is weak necessarily weakens all the others, and none of them can compensate for the failing of one of the others.
History is littered with stories writ large of the damage caused when one institution tries to displace or take on the tasks of another, most especially when government and religion try to do each other’s work. Though government often tries to take unto itself the work and prerogatives of some of the other institutions through the use of force (embodied in laws), it cannot fulfill a purpose for which it does not have the capacity. (Its fundamental capacity is force, its role is justice, and its object is peace.)
The work of growing a society is much like the work of a farmer growing his crops. There are seasons and cycles: a time to sow, a time to grow, and a time to reap. He needs good seed or else his crop yields are meager. He must also pay attention to the seasons and plan his work accordingly, for he has no control over them. Society has analogous seeds, seasons, and crops: a time to sow (marriage soon after entering the marketplace), a time to grow in good soil (children in a married, worshipping family), and a time to reap (the celebration of young adulthood well-attained and poised to repeat the cycle).
Thus the people-forming institutions move through their generational cycles every twenty-five to thirty years or so, while the youngest generation replaces those who are aging and dying. All the while the two instrumental institutions are kept humming if they are “supplied” with productive workers for the marketplace and good citizens for the work of the commons.
The intact married family with children is the household that generates the productive work, income, and savings that purchase houses, food, cars, and clothing, use energy, send children to school, and save for college and weddings. It is of homes like this that the Nobel Laureate economist Gary Becker spoke when he said that “the mother at home raising her children contributes more to the economy than her husband out in the workforce.” If we want a vibrant economy, we must grow the best of children, just as the farmer who wants the best crops pays close attention to the timing of the seasons, and sows the best seed in the best soil he can.
Much like the farmer who neglects the basics, the peoples of Spain, Italy, and Greece have given up on traditional family life as the core of their culture and their future, and have vied with each other over the last few decades for the lowest fertility rate in the world. The finance ministers of the European Union (and the world) do not appear to have caught on to the economy-altering implications of this change, while we in the United States are well on our way to becoming a Spain, Italy, or Greece writ large, unless we again learn the fundamental law of the seasons of society’s regeneration, and the absolute necessity of the timely emergence of the young intact married family with children that worships God weekly.