The following address was made by The Hon Kevin Andrews MP (Member, Australian Parliament; Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services) at a function organised by the Marriage Foundation at the Middle Temple London, on December 21 2012, to introduce Kevin Andrews’s new book Maybe ‘I do’ — Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness (published by Conor Court, available here) to a British audience. The photo shows Kevin Andrews with Paul Coleridge, Chairman of the Marriage Foundation.
Maybe ‘I do’ – Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness
It is a delight to join you in one of the four great Inns of Court. It is also a rare privilege, Sir Paul, to share a platform with a Family Court judge who has taken the decision to speak out about the significance of stable marriages for adults, children and society, and the tragedy of rising levels of divorce and the growth of a non-marital culture.
When divorce laws were reformed in Australia in the mid-1970s, the Parliament constructed them upon two pillars: first, the right to terminate a marriage that had irretrievably broken down; and, secondly, the desire to provide an opportunity for couples to reconcile their differences, if at all possible. Regrettably, the second pillar of reconciliation crumbled within a few years, due largely to the inattention given to it by the Family Court.
Christmas is traditionally a time when individuals are embraced in the kinship of immediate and wider family. Sadly, for an increasing number of people, Christmas is a reminder that the ties of a intact marriage and the stability of a stable mother and father unit have been lost. Tragically, as this Foundation has pointed out, this experience has become the norm for tens of thousands of young people. Half of all children in this country are born out-of-wedlock. Half of all children have lost all contact with their father by the time they reach 16. These are truly shocking statistics.
The economic cost alone is enormous, an estimated $20 billion per year in the UK, and close to $10 billion in Australia. These figures do not adequately convey the personal trauma, the lost educational and employment opportunities, and the incidence of poverty for so many people.
The 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. On this side of 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 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.
This trend was borne out by data released last week by ACOSS, which revealed that 25 per cent of lone parents in Australia live below the poverty line (defined as 50 per cent of median income). Similarly, 52 per cent of the unemployed and 43 per cent of parenting payment recipients are below the 50 per cent of median income line, suggesting that Isabel Sawhill’s observation is as true for Australia as it is for the US.
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, nor 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, concludes his survey of the research 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.
Maybe ‘I do’ reflects the synthesis of two strands of my interests and activities over the past two to three decades. One is the public role of 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 returning to the families’ portfolio 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.
The thesis of the book
My thesis can be stated succinctly.
There are two competing views about marriage. The first is marriage as 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, 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, as a pre-political institution. The alternative view politicises marriage in a novel, and I contend, a dangerous way.
These views extend to responses to the retreat from marriage and the rise in non-marital childbearing which I outline in the book. One is to treat 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’ – Modern marriage and the pursuit of happiness, 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.
Maybe ‘I do’ has a number of layers and themes. It reveals that most people, including the young, retain an aspiration for a happy and fulfilling marriage. It charts the negative impacts of marital breakdown and unwed childbearing on adults, children and society through the distillation of hundreds of social science studies. It examines the cultural and legal changes that have facilitated the trends and examines the impact across the western world.
I also examine the policy responses to date, before proposing a number of policy goals and proposals, including expanded relationships, marriage and parenting education.
Finally, at the behest of my publisher, I have included a chapter about what the social scientists observe helps individuals and couples aspiring for a healthy and happy marriage, and what can detract from this goal, including a series of common myths about marriage and divorce.
I have been fortunate also to discuss these issues over many years with some of the foremost family scholars, researchers, practitioners and policy-makers in the world. Many of them have been extraordinarily generous with their time and advice.