Bob McCoskrie – National Director, Family First NZ
In January 2018, Jacinda Ardern announced her pregnancy with boyfriend Clarke Gayford outside their Auckland home to an adoring national and international media. We all celebrated the exciting news of our Prime Minister becoming a mother, and started counting down the months and days to the birth of her daughter.
During this media conference, a not-so-subtle reporter asked “Have you considered getting married?” Clarke responded, “I like the idea we’re doing everything in reverse: we bought a house together, then we’re having a baby, and… we’ll see.”
In a subsequent radio interview, Jacinda agreed. “I predict we will one day. It’s just we happen to have done things in reverse a little bit, but that happens in life sometimes too.”
As we know, Clarke popped the question and the pair were engaged over Easter weekend 2019 at Mahia.
And now we excitedly await the wedding day this coming summer.
We should celebrate this announcement – both for the couple and their daughter – but also because it sends an important societal message.
Marriage still matters.
Jacinda and Clark were right. Generally speaking, society still thinks that the best approach is to get married, get pregnant, get a house – kind of that order. Sometimes the house comes before the children – although that is becoming increasingly difficult in New Zealand due to the current housing market.
It has always been understood that there is a stability that marriage brings which is not so easily replicated in other partnership arrangements, and which can create the best environment possible for children.
Research is persuasive; children raised by their married biological parents are by far the safest from violence, abuse, poverty, and from prison – and so too are the adults. Not always – but the exception actually reinforces the norm.
But often when marriage is promoted, it is labelled as an attack on solo or divorced parents. That prevents us from recognising the benefits of marriage supported by decades of research. In virtually every category that social science has measured, children and adults do better when parents get married and stay married – provided there is no presence of high conflict or violence.
This is not a criticism of solo parents. It simply acknowledges the benefits of the institution of marriage.
In fact, just last September, Stats NZ announced that sole parents of dependent children report lower levels of wellbeing across a range of measures, including mental health and loneliness. 27% of sole parents rated their overall life satisfaction as low (a score of 0–6 on a scale of 0–10, where 0 is completely dissatisfied and 10 is completely satisfied), compared with only 12% of partnered parents to dependent children. The majority (83%) of these sole parents were women.
However, according to the most recently reported statistics, the general marriage rate has dropped to a record low of only 10 couples per 1,000 people eligible to marry (unmarried people aged 16 years and over). This is less than half of the rate of 30 years ago and follows a general decline since the peak in 1971 when the marriage rate was 45.5 per 1,000.
That decline is one of our most important social issues.
A recent report on child abuse in New Zealand and its causes argued that ‘family structure’ is the ‘elephant in the room’, and that the growth of child abuse has accompanied a reduction in marriage and an increase in cohabiting and single-parent families.
The presence of biological fathers matters because, generally – but not every time, it protects children from child abuse. Marriage presents the greatest likelihood that the father will remain part of an intact family.
Compared to married parents, cohabiting parents are 4-5 times more likely to separate by the time their child is aged five.
The report follows on from an earlier report (May 2016) on child poverty and its similar link to family structure, and a report on imprisonment rates (June 2018). The latter report stated that if the government doesn’t want to keep building more prisons, it needs to look to the children who are potentially tomorrow’s offenders and acknowledge the role family stability plays.
An analysis of social science literature over 30 years by The Heritage Foundation, an influential US research institute, found that the rise in violent crime parallels the rise in families abandoned by fathers. The Heritage Foundation research found that while the finger often gets pointed at certain racial groups, the real variable is not race but family structure. It’s just that the incidence of broken families is much higher in the racial groups often cited, as is the case in New Zealand.
According to Why Marriage Matters – a report by 13 leading social-science academics, including Professor William Galston, a domestic policy adviser to the Clinton administration – parental divorce or non-marriage appears to increase children’s risk of school failure, the risk of suicide, psychological distress, and most significantly, delinquent and criminal behaviour.
A 2008 report by the NZ Institute of Economic Research estimated that the fiscal cost to the New Zealand taxpayer of family breakdown and decreasing marriage rates is at least $1 billion per year and has cost approximately $8 billion over the past decade.
On average, children raised by married couples have the best outcomes in health, education and income, and by far the lowest involvement with the criminal justice system.
Marriage – whether preceded by a period of cohabitation or not – remains the more stable form of relationship. That’s why marriage is needed and why marriage matters.
It’s not simplistic or intolerant to promote marriage. And it’s not unrealistic to teach future generations that the best environment for them as parents, and for their children, is within marriage.
Marriage isn’t perfect, but we ignore its benefits at our peril.
Governments should focus on and encourage and support what works. Our children deserve this investment in their safety and protection.
That’s why Jacinda and Clark’s planned wedding sends an important societal message.
Marriage still matters. We wish them all the best as they prepare for this special and significant day for their family.