SOCIETY: by Hon. Kevin AndrewsNews Weekly
Steps we can take to strengthen marriage
, November 10, 2012
Senior federal Liberal frontbencher Kevin Andrews has recently produced an internationally-acclaimed book, Maybe ‘I Do’: Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness. Here he summarises some of the book’s main ideas.
The United States’ Brookings Institution economist, Isabel Sawhill, wrote this year that if individuals do just three things — finish high school, work full time and marry before they have children — their chances of being poor drop from 15 per cent to two per cent.
The respected scholar of child poverty went on the say that “unless the media, parents and other influential leaders celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children, the new trend — bringing up baby alone — may be irreversible”.
Sawhill is not alone in her observations.
Across the Atlantic, the UK Centre for Social Justice concluded in its report, Broken Britain, that the fabric of society was crumbling, leaving at its margins an underclass, where life is characterised by dependency, addiction, debt and family breakdown. It is an underclass where a child born into poverty today is more likely to remain in poverty than any time since the late 1960s. The centre identified five key paths to poverty: family breakdown, serious personal debt, drug and alcohol addiction, failed education, worklessness and dependency.
In Australia, demographers at Melbourne’s Monash University were some of the first in the Western world to observe a growing gap between the educated, employed, well-off and married; and those who are less educated, in marginal or no employment, and are unpartnered. It is a trend that has since been recognised in the US, the UK and elsewhere.
Hundreds of social science studies across the Western world now point to one clear conclusion: that the incidence of family breakdown and unpartnered parenthood is having a significant impact, especially on children, but also on adults and society.
The studies report problematic outcomes for the health, education and well-being of the young people affected by the changes. Where children experience more than one family transition, the risks compound.
This is not to say that all the effects apply to each child whose parents divorce, or who is raised by a single parent. There is no way to predict how any particular child will be affected, or to what extent. But it is clear that there are widespread ramifications for this cohort of children as a whole.
Nor is it to suggest that many single parents are not doing a good job, often in very difficult circumstances.
The renowned sociologist, Professor Andrew Cherlin, notes, even if a minority of the affected children have their lives altered, it is still a lot of children.
If we are concerned about poverty and social justice, we must be concerned about marriage and family.
Increasingly, social scientists argue that we must do something about the issue.
One the world’s leading marital scholars, Professor Paul Amato, has conducted an extensive survey of the research. He concludes that “studies consistently indicate that children raised by two happily and continuously married parents have the best chance of developing into competent and successful adults”.
Professor Amato adds: “Because we all have an interest in the well-being of children, it is reasonable for social institutions (such as the state) to attempt to increase the proportion of children raised by married parents with satisfying and stable marriages.”
The alternative is to treat the negative consequences as the unavoidable flotsam of modern relations. This is a counsel of despair.
My book Maybe ‘I Do’: Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness reflects the synthesis of two strands of my interests and activities over the past two to three decades.
One is my public role as parliamentarian and policy-maker. It was a concern about marriage and family that motivated me to enter parliament, and which has been the focus of my ongoing attention since. I served on the original parliamentary inquiry into the operation of the child support scheme, and later chaired the inquiry into strategies to strengthen and support marriage.
The other, more private, sphere has been in the field of marriage education. For over 30 years, Margaret and I have been part of a team of couples who have facilitated marriage education programs for engaged and newly married couples. The program has supported more than 20,000 people on their pathway to marriage. It has brought me into direct discussions with many young couples about their motivations, aspirations, hopes and fears regarding marriage.
After becoming Shadow Minister for Families in 2009, I was curious to learn if there had been any change in the many adverse consequences of divorce and single parenthood that had been identified in the 1990s. Had the negative trends identified in the research been compounded or ameliorated? Had the policy initiatives taken in the meantime had any impact? In this book, I have drawn liberally upon and updated earlier research with hundreds of subsequent studies.
Two views of marriage
My thesis can be stated succinctly.
There are two competing views about marriage. The first is marriage as a protective institution, especially for children, but also for adults and society generally. The alternative view is marriage as an affectionate relationship between individuals.
I am not suggesting that they are either/or choices or strict opposites, but that one or the other must be the primary consideration. Most marriages contain aspects of both.
The alternative views are as old at Plato and Aristotle.
The first view — marriage as protective institution, especially for children — has been favoured across cultures and civilisations throughout history.
But there have been times when the alternative has gained more prominence, for example, amongst the Epicurean Greeks, in the late Roman era, and in the Soviet Union between the wars.
The book considers the reasons why the former view has prevailed, and why it should continue to do so.
Importantly, it gathers the evidence from hundreds of social science studies over the past four decades that overwhelmingly illustrate that a happy, stable marriage is the optimal state for children and adults. It also reveals that when the protective role of marriage is lost or discarded, many people, especially children and women, are left worse off.
There is also a secondary theme. The traditional view treats marriage, in the words of John Locke (1632-1704), as a pre-political institution. The alternative view politicises marriage in a novel and, I contend, dangerous way.
These competing views extend to responses to the retreat from marriage and the rise in non-marital childbearing which I outline in the book. One view treats the negative consequences as the unavoidable flotsam of modern relations. This view is reinforced by powerful social and cultural forces.
The other view recognises that, while most people survive the adverse consequences, many are disadvantaged significantly. It recognises that a satisfying marriage and a healthy family life remain widely-held aspirations. It is compounded by a critical fact: that many children suffer consequences of marital decline that can last a lifetime.
In Maybe ‘I Do’, I have drawn from hundreds of studies to chart the impact of family structure on the health, happiness and well-being of adults, children and society.
The cultural and legal changes that have facilitated the trends are discussed, and the impact across the Western world charted. I also examine the policy responses to date, before proposing a number of new directions.
Four goals are identified. First, nations should have an explicit marriage and family policy. Secondly, they should seek to maintain at least a replacement birth-rate. Thirdly, national policy should proclaim the ideal of marital permanence and affirm marriage as the optimal environment for the raising of children. Finally, the policy should value family stability and reinforce personal and inter-generational responsibility.
A number of specific policy suggestions to support marriage are proposed. First, better education about relationships should start in schools. Most schools have some form of sex education, but it should be augmented by an ongoing program of relationship education.
Second, as British Labour MP, Frank Field, recently proposed in the UK, there should be more education for young people about parenting. He had observed that an increasing number of youngsters do not have a workable model of positive family life.
Third, pre-marriage education should be expanded. Currently, only a minority of couples participate in such programs, but those most in need often miss out.
Fourth, as new parenthood is often a stressful time, there is a need to raise knowledge about parenting skills, something to which British Prime Minister David Cameron has responded by giving all new parents UK£100 (AUD$155) vouchers to be spent on parenting classes.
Fifth, many people enter new relationships when previous ones break down. Often this involves the formation of stepfamilies. These complex new arrangements involve many tensions for both parents and children. More assistance is required to prevent these relationships breaking down at an even higher rate than the original marriages.
There is also a need for greater research to discover which programs provide the best assistance in preventing marital dysfunction and supporting the widespread aspiration that most people have for a happy and stable marriage.
Finally, many people later regret their divorce and wish that something more could have been done to save their marriage. The provision of reconciliation services was envisaged when no-fault divorce was introduced, but this has been largely abandoned. While maintaining the right to divorce, we could do more to encourage and support those couples who wish to pursue a reconciliation of their marital differences.
None of these proposals, which are outlined in my book in greater detail, are exceptional in themselves; but, taken together, they could help to address a trend that increasingly worries many social scientists and policy-makers.
While policy-makers can encourage marital stability, there is a limited impact that they can have on the culture. For this reason, the book concludes by examining those factors which social scientists observe are likely to assist individuals to achieve their aspiration for a healthy and happy marriage, and those that detract from this goal.
The Hon. Kevin Andrews MP (Liberal, Victoria) is federal Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services. He is married to Margaret, and they have five children. Together with a group of other couples, they founded the Marriage Education Programme in 1980.