Income inequality, we learn from the Census Bureau, has reached the highest level since data were first collected on the subject in 1967. Poverty has increased dramatically, with one of seven Americans now falling below the poverty threshold.
Additionally, the Census Bureau reports that the rate of marriage has declined since the recession began. Just 52 percent of adults over the age of 18 are married now compared with 57 percent a decade ago.
"Given the scope of the recent recession, many more couples are likely to choose cohabitation over marriage in the coming years," Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau told The Associated Press.
Mather may be correct, but if so, Americans are choosing exactly the wrong way to weather hard times because marriage is one of the surest ways to escape poverty.
Some of those moving in together cite practicality. It's cheaper for two to share an apartment, microwave, utilities, etc, than for each to have his or her own. These efficiencies hold true for cohabiting couples as much as for marrieds. Modern weddings being expensive affairs, economically strapped young people may be choosing to skip the big party and just move in together, assuming that they are being prudent.
But cohabitation doesn't begin to confer the benefits that marriage does. In "The State of Our Unions," scholars associated with the Institute for American Values outline some of the advantages married couples enjoy over their single counterparts.
"Men who marry," writes Alex Roberts, "typically earn more because marriage itself leads to increases in income; that is, men who marry work harder, work smarter, and earn more than their unmarried peers ... Cohabiting couples ... are less likely to pool resources, feel obligated to spend wisely and save, or invest in the future of the household." Married men earn between 10 and 40 percent more than their single counterparts with similar educational and job histories.
Married couples also create more wealth than single people or cohabiting couples. "A 1992 study of retirement data concluded that 'individuals who are not continuously married have significantly lower wealth than those who remain married throughout their lives.'"
A study of 7,608 household heads between 1984 and 1989 found that those who married saw income increases of 50 to 100 percent, and net wealth increases of 400 to 600 percent. "Continuously married households had about double the income and four times the net worth of the continuously divorced and never-married, on average."
Marriage also bestows more emotional well-being. A study by W. Bradford Wilcox and others, "Marriage and Mental Health in Adults and Children," reports that "Married Americans were more than twice as likely as divorced or separated Americans to say they were very happy with life in general. Cohabiting, never-married, and widowed individuals' happiness resembled that of divorced and separated people more than married people."
Married people were also less likely to suffer from depression and other forms of mental anguish: "Married men and women report fewer symptoms of mental illness and psychological distress than do otherwise similar individuals who are not married. Longitudinal research shows that it is not merely that mentally healthy people are more likely to get or stay married. Instead, marriage itself appears to boost mental health. Remaining unmarried or getting divorced seems to result, on average, in a deterioration in mental well-being."
Children of married couples are far healthier mentally and physically than the children of cohabiting, divorced, or never-married couples. Wilcox et al cite one study suggesting that the tripling of the teen suicide rate over the past half-century is closely associated with divorce, while married men are half as likely as single men to kill themselves.
Marriage knits the couple into a kinship network in which interest-free loans, baby-sitting, elder care, and other forms of assistance in hard times are more readily available. Sadly, among those most in need of these added supports -- those with lower levels of education -- marriage is in steep decline. More than 50 percent of new mothers without college degrees are unmarried, compared with only 7 percent of mothers with college diplomas. In fact, among the college-educated, marriage has strengthened over the past several decades, leading to a "marriage gap" that goes a long way toward explaining the slowing of growth in family income over the past generation. Married-couple families have become a rapidly diminishing segment of total families over the past 20 years.
The young adults who move in together imagining that a wedding is too expensive are paying a far higher price than they recognize.