The economic juggernaut that is Utah has gotten a lot of press. A Deseret News editorial noted that strong families in Utah are an important engine powering this economic good news, as research confirms and as Utah Gov. Spencer Cox acknowledged in his 2022 State of the State address. That commentary issued a general call for public measures to strengthen marriage as a central component of good family policy.
Although Utah retains one of the highest proportions of married, two-parent families in the nation, it still has an above average divorce rate and falling marriage and fertility rates. Utahns — and Americans generally — believe in the personal and public good of marriage, but we still struggle to achieve our aspirations of stable, healthy and happy unions.
It’s easy to say “amen” to a general call to strengthen marriage; it’s harder to outline specifics. Devilish details can derail a smiling consensus about what to do. But Brad Wilcox and his colleagues jump-started this needed cultural conversation on specific initiatives with their recent article in these pages.
I second their recommended starting point: a dedicated effort to teach the “success sequence” to youth and young adults in our schools, supported by a sustained media campaign funded by the legislature. That reality is clear: When young adults finish at least a high school education, work full time, and marry before having children — in that sequence — they dramatically decrease their chances (and their children’s chances) of experiencing poverty.
But that shouldn’t be the endpoint for our public efforts to strengthen marriage in Utah and other states. Next, when couples make the decision to marry — whether they have followed the success sequence or not — let’s help them build a stronger foundation for success.
Preparing engaged couples
It can be a tough transition from me to we. Currently, less than 30% of premarital couples in Utah and across the nation invest in formal premarital education and counseling designed to help them improve their communication skills, deepen their understanding of each other, talk together about important issues, and strengthen their commitment.
We can do more as a matter of public policy to increase the supply of good, evidence-based premarital education and counseling and make access to it easier. Utah and a handful of other states discount the cost of a marriage license for couples who invest in formal premarital education. That’s a good baseline. But states could also consider partnering with wedding retailers to encourage discounts on their products and services to couples who invest in premarital education.
In the digital age, many will also want the convenience (and privacy) of free online educational options, which we should support. The best time to save a marriage is before it starts.
Supporting married couples
Of course, even good preparation for marriage is not an inoculation against marital struggles. Marriages need regular inputs of energy that keep them growing and adjusting to daily stresses and life course changes. That’s why public policy should support ongoing educational resources for couples to fight marital drift and entropy.
Even with support, most marriages will still hit rough patches. More than half of married couples report that they have thought seriously about divorce at some point in their marriage and a quarter have had such thoughts in the last six months. Public policy can do more to help couples who are thinking about divorce get professional help. Health insurance policies often fail to cover marital counseling, despite its known success and health benefits. More employers could include a specific marriage counseling benefit in their employee assistance programs. And state legislatures could consider making the cost of marriage counseling tax deductible.
Avoid penalizing the choice to marry
Unfortunately, there are public policies that actually penalize financially the choice to marry. This includes a wide array of public assistance policies intended originally to help single parents (e.g., Children’s Health Insurance Program, Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) but that unintentionally make it costlier for unmarried couples — especially working-class couples — to marry. One report calculated that the financial penalty for tying the knot could end up being 30%-40% of a typical couple’s income.
Knowing this, we can do a better job of aligning social policies with the need to support the choice to marry.
Pay attention to implementation
Passing legislation and creating (or adjusting) policies are important (and hard work), but it’s not enough. Good implementation work is also needed to make law and policy function as intended.
As noted earlier, several states have passed laws to discount the marriage license fee for engaged couples who invest in premarital education. But these positive steps have not been as effective as they could be due to laissez-faire implementation.
Consequently, legislatures need to enact effective means of implementing, refining, and evaluating the policies. Here, Utah has a distinct advantage. With an active, in-statute Marriage Commission and a new Office of Families that reports directly to the governor, Utah is well equipped to effectively implement public policy to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and stronger marriages. Other states should consider creating similar supporting infrastructure.
Don’t forget traditional economic policy
Some of the most important supports for marriage are traditional public policies that create more fertile soil in which strong marriage can germinate and grow. For instance, more and more couples delay tying the knot because they can’t afford good housing. So, policies that promote affordable housing will increase the marriage rate.
A college degree is likewise associated with more and better marriages, so greater access to higher education will indirectly increase the number of couples who form and sustain a healthy marriage. On a broader level, strong economies that provide good jobs make marriage easier. So, smart economic policies are marriage policies in disguise.
In all this, let’s not forget that many families outside the boundaries of marriage need support too, which is where the vast majority of public policy funds for families are spent. Nothing I have recommended here should subtract from effective policies to help these more vulnerable families reach for a self-sustaining future. But direct support for needy families should go hand-in-hand with sensible marriage policy that indirectly reduces the odds adults and children will ever need such support.
This is not an exhaustive list of actions we could take to build a stronger marriage culture. But the policy ideas outlined here are both feasible and cost-efficient. They do not impose government mandates and therefore create more choice, not less.
Furthermore, they are not politically divisive; substantial public support for them exists. Surveys have shown that a majority of Utahns (and Americans) think these kinds of policies are a good idea, with only 10% seeing them as a bad idea.
Becoming complacent and taking Utah’s “family miracle” for granted, especially when it is facing strong headwinds, is not wise policy. Being proactive in taking sensible, low-cost public-policy steps to support Utah marriages is an important way we can reduce the need for expensive and intrusive government programs to help families. And it’s another way that Utah can lead the nation and provide a model for other states to follow.
Alan J. Hawkins is manager of the Utah Marriage Commission. Before that, he was a professor of family life at Brigham Young University for 33 years. These views are his own.