Decision to marry depends on secure economic outlook

28 June 2011

Falling marriage rates may be attributed to the economic downturn and a rise in couples deferring nuptials until they have achieved financial security, a leading American family scholar will argue.

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Professor Andrew Cherlin, of Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, has arrived in London to offer up lessons for the United Kingdom based on the American way of marriage. He will present his research findings at the biennial Edith Dominian Memorial Lecture, hosted by OnePlusOne – the UK’s leading relationships research organisation.

Focussing on the rise and consequence of cohabiting relationships in the US and UK, Professor Cherlin will argue that, in contrast to public perception which often assumes marriage is fading away, marriage “has become the preferred way to have an intimate partnership, provided that the partners can make a go of it economically.”

The lecture will be of particular interest to David Cameron and senior Conservative policy advisors feeling pressure from Tory backbenchers to honour the election pledge to offer tax breaks for married couples.

Several MPs yesterday tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill that would allow spouses who do not work to transfer their unused personal tax allowance to a working partner, effectively pushing through the policy.

Supporters have argued that bringing back marriage tax breaks could incentivise marriage for couples who feel they lack the financial security to make the formal commitment to one another. But family researchers will question how large the incentive must be to effectively change public behaviour and whether there are more effective ways of supporting family stability.

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According to Professor Cherlin, evidence from America shows that “Cohabiting couples who do not see the possibility of a strong financial footing are more likely to decide to have a child, or to accept an unplanned pregnancy, rather than postpone having children until they have the means to marry.”

The reintroduction of marriage tax breaks, abolished by Gordon Brown in 1999, could encourage parents in a cohabiting union to marry, should one partner wish to stay at home with their children.

However, cohabiting relationships in the UK are of longer duration than in the US, resulting in greater stability for children. Professor Cherlin draws attention to this, and argues that it might be attributed to generous social provision in the UK orientated toward supporting stable living arrangements for all families, whether parents are married or cohabiting.

The lecture, titled ‘The American Way of Marriage: Are There Lessons for the United Kingdom?’ and held at The Royal Society,  will also address the link between marriage and levels of educational attainment, as well as the impact multiple cohabiting relationships – a growing trend in the United States – has on the wellbeing of children.

For further information contact:

Martiena van der Meer, media officer