Marriage Works: An Exaggerated Message
Young married couple.
Credit: dreamstime.com

Across America, as a result of the $150 million now available annually since 2006 through the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative, curious educational campaigns have popped up extolling the virtues of marriage.

One such campaign, Marriage Works USA, has placed messages on billboards, buses, radio and television in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. These campaigns depict a simple love-marriage-baby-carriage scenario with messages such as "married people earn and save more money" and "married people enjoy better health."

It's enough to make a sociologist wince.  Such claims are gross exaggerations if not alltogether false, and they can be detrimental.

Marriage complex

The best response I've seen to the "marriage works" message has been from a gay couple who climbed a Baltimore billboard to graffiti the words "Let us do it."

Sociologists aren't against marriage. At issue is the complexity of the topic, as highlighted regularly in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior (JHSB). The group behind Marriage Works USA, Campaign For Our Children, in fact uses JHSB and other journal articles to support its claims. But even a cursory reading of these articles reveals how little support they truly provide.

For example, the campaign references the March 1988 JHSB article "Single Motherhood and Children's Health." This study merely finds that single mothers are more likely report poorer health for their children than mothers with a partner. The study does not conclude that marriage is superior to cohabitation, nor does it assess the actual health of children. This potential for poor health is more aligned to poverty than marital status.

Half the facts

Similarly, facts are drawn from the 1999 article "The Gender Gap in the Economic Well Being of Nonresident Fathers and Custodial Mothers" in the journal Demography. But here the authors found that 20 percent of their female subjects actually experience a better standard of living after divorce. Factors depend on how much of a physical, emotional and financial drain the former husband was, implying that "marriage works" only sometimes.

The lead author, Suzanne Bianchi, co-author of the award-winning 2006 book "Changing Rhythms of American Family Life," later found that single mothers with the same educational and economic background as married mothers spend equal amounts of quality time with their children.

Most bizarre is the Marriage Works reference to the 1997 study "Unobservable Individual Effects: Marriage and the Earnings of Young Men" in Economic Inquiry. It's not wise to stop reading after the first line in the introduction, "Married men earn more than non-married men." By the fourth line it becomes evident that the paper sets forth to disprove this misconception, enabling the authors to conclude, "Our findings cast doubt on the interpretation that marriage enhances productivity through specialization."

Other studies point to the detrimental affects of divorce on women and children. So, marriage didn't work.

The other half

Among myriad studies not referenced in any "marriage works" campaign is the March 2006 JHSB article, "You Make Me Sick: Marital Quality and Health over the Life Course," in which the authors conclude, if you haven't guessed from the title, "all marriages are not equally beneficial to health."

Similarly, in the June 2007 JHSB article "Depression and the Psychological Benefits of Entering Marriage," the authors state, "These findings call into question the assumption that marriage is always a good choice for all individuals."

Part of the confusion is cause and effect. Higher social status leads to better health, and those of higher social status are more likely to get married. But this doesn't imply that marriage is the ticket to health and wealth. Some of those not marrying might be incarcerated or otherwise not the best catch.

Marriage works again and again

The 2009 book "The Marriage-Go-Round" by sociologist Andrew Cherlin delves in to some of these issues. Marriage can work, but the sole message should not be to get married, Cherlin says.

His research has uncovered how the United States has more marriages and remarriages, more divorces, and more short-term cohabiting relationships than other developed countries. This can have a negative impact on children's health. The best thing for a single mother might be to slow down and not marry rather than enter into a series of bad relationships.

The "marriage works" facts hold up only if you replace with word "married" with "people who don't go through one or more nasty divorces or have a series of unstable relationships." I'm all for simplifying messages. But forcing young people into marriage with false hopes can cause more harm than good.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.