The ESRI’s pessimism on pro-marriage policies

A major report on the family in Ireland was issued by the ESRI yesterday. Called ‘Family Figures: Family Dynamics ringsand Family Types in Ireland, 1986-2006’, it draws on Census data to paint a detailed picture of family type and structure today. It contains some of the same data that is contained in our own 2007 document, ‘Marriage Breakdown and Family Structure in Ireland’.

One striking feature of the report is its extreme pessimism (realism?) with regard to the effectiveness of pro-marriage policies. It says on page xii, ‘Our findings suggest that the potential for policy to alter trends in family structures and types through financial incentives is limited’.

It cites the rise of cohabitation despite the tax advantages of being married.

Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the left-of-centre Brookings Institute in the US have an excellent answer to this in their new ook ‘Creating an opportunity society’.

They make three points. First of all they concede that in the main marriage programs have been shown not to work.

However, they point out that if, on the strength of this, we are led to abandon pro-marriage policies, then we should dump many anti-poverty programs as well because the evidence that these work is also very thin.

Finally, and importantly, they say we don’t yet know whether many of the new pro-marriage programs introduced in the US over the last few years will work or not. The evidence is not yet in.

Here is their quote in full: ‘The second argument against Government promotion of marriage is that marriage programs have been shown not to work. This argument is mostly true, with some modest exceptions, but is not entirely persuasive. Many progressives who argue against marriage programs on the grounds that they lack evidence of success support a range of other programs for low-income families that have little evidence of success. If evidence of success were a binding requirement for every Government program, the federal budget would be spared scores of billions of dollars in current spending on programs for which the evidence is somewhat thin.

‘More, marriage programs are relatively new and have not had time to demonstrate their possible effectiveness.’

This is one possible response to the pessimism of this new ESRI report vis-a-vis marriage policies. Another is to say that if current policies aren’t working properly then try new policies, or beef up the existing ones.

Anti-poverty programmes are never simply dumped when they don’t work. They are either replaced or improved.

This is because we know that fighting poverty is an urgent task. Evidently we no longer believe support supporting marriage is as urgent a task and that is one reason why an ever growing number of children are growing up without the benefit of a married mother and father.