When Americans debate the value of marriage, most attention focuses on the potential harm to children of divorce or illegitimacy, and for good reason. Mountains of research tell us that children reared outside of intact marriages are much more likely than other kids to slip into poverty, become victims of child abuse, fail at school and drop out, use illegal drugs, launch into premature sexual activity, become unwed teen mothers, divorce, commit suicide and experience other signs of mental illness, become physically ill, and commit crimes and go to jail. On average, children reared outside of marriage are less successful in their careers, even after controlling not only for income but also for parental conflict.
Yes, marriage protects children. And yes, marriage therefore protects taxpayers and society from a broad and deep set of costs, personal and communal. But there is another case for marriage, equally significant, that you probably haven't heard. Marriage is a powerful creator and sustainer of human and social capital for adults as well as children, about as important as education when it comes to promoting the health, wealth, and well-being of adults and communities. For most Americans, this is news. When it comes to adults, the case for lifelong marriage has been framed in exclusively moral, spiritual, and emotional terms: one side argues for personal liberation from marriage, the other urges parents to sacrifice for God's and/or the kids' sake.