Marriage has become controversial. Some experts argue that marriage is fundamental and foundational. In their view, the erosion of marriage lies at the heart of a wide range of social problems. They urge state efforts to revive marriage and promote marital commitment. But other experts argue that marriage is nothing more than a label, and an old-fashioned label at that. They argue that the state should not only eschew marriage promotion, but abandon marriage regulation altogether. Citing declining rates of marriage and marital birth - the very same factors that lead marriage advocates to urge promotion strategies - these commentators argue that tax obligations, government benefits, and even spousal rights and duties should be determined based on relational facts rather than marital status. They question whether the state-sanctioned marriage is either necessary or useful. Both of these perspectives have attracted legislators and policymakers. In the United States, the Bush administration has recently launched an initiative in support of "healthy marriages" that builds on earlier welfare-reform legislation which aimed at promoting marriage among the poor. Across the Canadian border, Parliament has revised both tax and old-age pension rules so that the same standards apply to married and "common-law" partners. More recently, the Canadian Law Reform Commission has recommended comprehensive revision of Canadian law to avoid "problems of coherence" arising from marital status classifications. Which approach is preferable? This paper analyzes the growing body of social science evidence that bears on marriage regulation and makes policy recommendations based on that evidence. It concludes that both the advocates and opponents of marriage have overstated their claims: the data demonstrate that classifications based on marriage are sometimes desirable and sometimes not; they show that healthy marriages do provide public benefits, but that the feasibility of effective state efforts to promote marriages of this type is unclear; they suggest that advocates and proponents of marriage share more common ground than is usually supposed.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/marsha_garrison/28/