SALT LAKE CITY — The "renaissance of marriage" in America will depend not only on renewing conservative values but also economic and social policies that support the poor, W. Bradford Wilcox said at the World Congress of Families Thursday.
The University of Virginia associate professor of sociology is nationally respected for his research on marriage and relationships and as the director of the National Marriage Project.
While other speakers offered views on same-sex marriage and abortion, Wilcox discussed how marriage benefits the economy and what conditions are needed to increase U.S. marriage rates.
"The unfortunate reality is we've got two ideological camps who don't speak to one another that much," Wilcox said in an interview later. "The tragedy here is that marriage and family life has been in the worst straits in working-class communities that are not at all being served by the world economy, the education system or the culture."
On Thursday, day three of a four-day conference billed as the "largest gathering of pro-family advocates in the world," Wilcox discussed his recent research in which he discovered that states with more marriages are also richer.
That's partly due to the mechanism of marriage itself, Wilcox said. Men, once the get married, tend to work more and make better financial decisions, according to Wilcox.
An earlier speaker, Pat Fagan, of the Family Research Council, described this boost as the "marriage premium."
"Ladies, you have quite an impact," Fagan said.
But Wilcox said it's a "chicken or the egg" question. Yes, men are more likely to get a job after they get married. But the research shows they're also more likely to get married when they feel marriageable — in other words, when they have a stable job and, usually, when they are better-educated.
He pointed to states like New Hampshire and Minnesota, which have high rates of marriage but are not particularly religious — instead, residents tend to be highly educated. These states often have low levels of child poverty and high levels of economic mobility, Wilcox said.
On the other hand, states like Idaho, South Dakota and Utah usually have average or even relatively low levels of education. But they still have high shares of married people, low rates of child poverty and high levels of economic mobility.
These states, which tend to be more religious and conservative, also tend to value commitment and marriage more, Wilcox said.
Wilcox's presentation stuck with Gary Martin, a Salt Lake City resident, who said 37 years of experience as an educator in both wealthy and low-income schools showed him that "zip code determines education."
Students from poor communities are "no less capable but because they come from a lower-income family, they were at a disadvantage," Martin said.
Martin said he believes living a "Christ-centered life" remains the best way to raise successful children, but he agreed that income does matter — and "it's up to the haves to help the have-nots."
Jason Carroll, a professor of family studies at Brigham Young University, focused on data that showed marriage isn't so much being delayed as being "re-sequenced."
"While marriage has been delayed, sex and childbearing has not," Carroll said.
Carroll said the average age of someone having their first child is now younger than the average age at which people first get married. He said that many youth today see marriage as unpredictable and likely to fail.
"Rather than selecting arbitrary ages, we need to start fostering a culture of real maturation and marriage preparedness" through values such as chastity and religious faith, Carroll said.
Wilcox agreed in his presentation that one-half of the solution to the marriage crisis is to foster a culture that values commitment and faith.
But he argued the other half of the solution is to support policies that strengthen the economic prospects of young working-class people, including apprenticeship programs and career academies. Wilcox added that the government shouldn't reduce welfare benefits for people once they get married.
Those are ideas that he acknowledged may not align with views held by the World Congress of Families, which states in its manifesto that it opposes "big government."
But, Wilcox said, “If you’re concerned about the health of the family, you need to recognize we need to do more to strengthen working class and poor Americans' ability to flourish in the marketplace.”