In many of the world’s richer countries policy watchers are concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor. The causes are often traced to taxation and welfare policies. But there is an important cause that is rarely discussed – the marriage gap that has opened up between those at the top of the socio-economic scale and those lower down.

Following research by family scholars in the United States on the marriage gap, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada has crunched the data for their country and found the same pattern. The following is their summary of the report, issued last week, The Canadian Marriage Gap, by Peter John Mitchell and Philip Cross.

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Our analysis shows that marriage in Canada, to an astonishing degree, is linked to income. Top income earners are very likely to be married, while their low income peers are very likely to be unmarried. This “marriage gap” is a concern since marriage itself is a powerful wealth creator and poverty protector.

Marriage has been in decline for decades. The census shows this clearly. Our analysis measures the share of all families (including families of one) that have a married or common-law spouse. It uses data from Statistics Canada’s Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics, which shows a pattern. Marriage declined more amongst mid and low income earners, causing the “marriage gap” to widen. However, a small resurgence in the marriage share was found in the last 13 years among some income / age groups.

Highest income earners

A very high percentage of Canadian families with income 25 percent above the median are married. This is true regardless of age. Their married share has dropped little from 1976. 

Middle income earners

The share of married families decreased much more dramatically among middle and low income earners. In 1976, 68 percent of these families had a married couple. In 1990 that number was down to 57 percent. It declined through the 1990s but has since levelled off at just below 50 percent.

Lowest income earners

Only a quarter of families earning 25 percent below the median income were married in 1976. That number dropped significantly through the 80s and 90s. Low-income families of all ages have seen a small increase in marriage between 1998 and 2011.

marriage gap graph

Why it matters

A diverse group of scholars have highlighted how marriage protects against poverty. “Divorce and unmarried childbearing increase poverty for both children and mothers, and married couples seem to build more wealth on average than singles or cohabiting couples.” Canadian policymakers should be concerned about the health of marriage because of its contribution to economic stability and human flourishing.

Policy considerations

Marriage is not a silver bullet for social problems. Yet, healthy marriages do promote economic and social goods – both privately and publicly. Government has a modest role in what it should and can do in the lives of Canadian families. The following policy considerations are currently being debated around the globe.

Public awareness campaigns

Sociologists Andrew Cherlin and Brad Wilcox differ in their approaches to family structure. Still, they jointly argue for greater economic support for families. They agree that existing tax credits for families and low-income workers should be expanded. Cherlin and Wilcox also propose a public education campaign, similar to anti-smoking initiatives. It would encourage young people to pursue education and postpone childbearing.

Making marriage counselling more accessible

Australian Social Services Minster Kevin Andrews has announced a plan to offer $200 vouchers for marriage and relationship counselling. Topics could include personal finance, parenting and conflict resolution. The one year trial is set to begin in July 2014. Similarly, Professor Alan Hawkins of Brigham Young University supports the federally funded Healthy Marriage Initiative in the United States. The program was created to encourage married couples and educate young people about the benefits of marriage. Hawkins suggests results are modest but have shown some success, particularly in Oklahoma.

Tax credits for married families

Matt Krzepkowski and Jack Mintz of the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, have proposed a specific model of family income splitting. It makes the basic personal tax exemption non-transferable for income splitting couples where there is a single income earner. This would require some workforce participation from both spouses to claim the credit while also reducing lost government revenue. Income splitting is extremely valuable. It grants families greater choice in how they structure their labour force participation and domestic commitments.

Reproduced with permission from the IMFC report, “The Canadian Marriage Gap”. For footnotes and other policy resources see downloads here at the IMFC website.