Yesterday I said that we need to move forward with building up the infrastructure to make traditional marriage into a realistic and attractive possibility. Today, I’m going to talk about some very practical things that we can start doing to help make this a reality.
In First Things’ Symposium on the SCOTUS decision, Matthew Schmitz makes the excellent point that marriage, as an institution, is in decline – and that this decline is linked to economics. “Marriage has declined the most among those who are the worst off. Men with only a high school degree or less are more likely than those with a further degree to have never married (25 percent v. 14 percent). A similar disparity exists between blacks (36 percent) and whites (16 percent). Those who do marry now marry later than ever.”
What’s missing in many cases is not a will to marry – 50% of those who have never married want to do so – but lack the means.
We are currently living 50 years into the aftermath of the sexual revolution. Today young people often come from broken homes, single-parent families, or even intact families that lack support from siblings or older generations. This means that the burdens of marriage fall on the individual rather than on an extended family or community.
Those of us who do have successful, traditional marriages tend to be better educated, wealthier, and better supported. We also tend to come from stable, two-parent families. It’s not just that this provides a good example of how to be married, it also provides a real, practical safety net. Because we can’t bring back the broken families of the past, we need instead to come up with ways of providing this kind of support on the individual, parish and state level. Here are some ways that I think we could:
Reduce The Cost of Weddings – The average American wedding costs over $30K, and even a budget wedding runs about $10K. Upper middle class folks can generally rely on their parents to foot most, or at least part, of the bill, but for many Americans that’s not a reality. A lot of people cohabit for years, even decades, trying to save enough money to afford to get married. In the past, whenever marriage has been common among the lower classes it has been a community affair. Most parishes have parish halls. We buy flowers for the altar. We have parish ladies who cook really good food and enjoy decorating. We wear our wedding dresses once, and then keep them in storage trying to stave off the moths. Why don’t we ask brides to donate their dresses after the wedding? Why not openly offer parishioners cost-free or low-cost weddings and then go out of our way to make to make the special day as special as possible?
Support Real Social Support for Families – When Americans ask me how I can afford to have a large family, one thing that inevitably comes up is the Canada Child Tax Benefit. I live in a country where there are substantial, stigma-free supports for low income families. I don’t have to pay for my groceries with food stamps, hand in reports to a welfare office, and then be told that I’m a leech on the system. I just send a form in to Canada Revenue along with each birth registration. With six children, one of whom is special needs, I get as much per year working as a stay-at-home mom as an average American earns working out of the house – and that income is tax free. I also do not pay for health care, and I have access to free dental clinics for my kids. Many conservative Christians in the US lobby against the kind of social security that makes it possible for me to have a large family. Christians should instead be clamouring for programs that help provide poor parents with the means to afford a more stable family life.
Offer Church-based Childcare Solutions – Most Americans do not earn a living wage, and two income families are a necessity for the majority. This means that every time a child is born, the family budget takes a massive hit in the form of childcare. There have been experiments done with placing daycares in nursing homes, to the benefit of both the young and the old. Church organizations should be looking at solutions like this to provide low-cost or subsidized child-care to families, especially those who would like to have more children but can’t afford it.
End the Isolation of the Nuclear Family – Wesley Hill has an excellent section on this in his wonderful book, Spiritual Friendship. Often, church programs separate singles, who are presumed to be looking to get married, from families, to the disservice of both. When I was growing up, I was part of a dynamic Anglican parish where older single people were often involved in family life. We had an adopted grandmother, for example, whose own grandkids lived far away. She helped walk us to school and provided free babysitting and goodies. At the end of her life, my mother visited her often, drove her to appointments and helped her biological children with her care. Building parish community that cuts across differences in lifestyle can make singleness more fruitful, and it can make the burdens of family life less isolating.
Lobby Against Laws that Punish the Poor – Christian lobby organizations have massive financial resources which get dumped into battles that we know we are going to lose. Many of these battles also serve to make Christians look bad in the public sphere. At the same time, laws that criminalize poverty or disproportionately punish the poor get passed all the time with barely a peep from Christian groups. Financial crises are a major cause of both divorce and abortion, and we know that people in grinding poverty generally do not marry. I’ve even seen situations on Catholic forums where people have advised women to get legal separations or divorces in order to avoid being sucked into bankruptcy along with their spouse. All of the last three Holy Fathers have drawn explicit attention to the connection between social justice and the sanctity of life and the family. So why don’t we turn some of that lobby money towards fighting injustices that nobody could possibly defend, and let the world “know that we are Christian by our love.”
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