TORONTO (CCN) — For most people marriage, a family — hearth and home — are the keys to a meaningful, successful life. But what if you can’t afford it? What if our economy, our society, is increasingly reserving marriage for a privileged few? What if the gap between rich and poor includes a marriage gap?
An Institute of Marriage and Family Canada study of Statistics Canada data released last February found that since 1976 the percentage of poor people who get married in Canada has dropped by more than half.
In 1976 a quarter of Canadians in the lowest 25 per cent of earners were married. By 2011 that number was down to 12 per cent.
While marriage as a living arrangement for Canadians has decreased overall, from 90.2 per cent of all census families in 1976 to 67 per cent in 2011, the rich are still getting and staying married. Between 1976 and 2011 the richest 25 per cent of Canadians have gone from 95 per cent married to 86 per cent. It’s hard to say how much of the nine per cent decline in marriage among the wealthy can be attributed to longer lifespans increasing the population of elderly widows.
For young people burdened with crippling student loans and trying to break into increasingly unaffordable urban housing markets, there’s no heady rush into wedded bliss. The average age of grooms increased from 25.3 in 1976 to 31.1 in 2008. The average bride in 1976 was 22.9, compared to 29.1 in 2008.
“There are people who now feel they don’t have the means, either in terms of financial means or cultural support, or psychological support, or family support to actually become married,” David Seljak, a sociology professor at Waterloo, Ont.’s St. Jerome’s University, told The Catholic Register. “There is a feeling among people that marriage is simply unimaginable for them.”
The notion that young people will acquire an education, establish themselves in the workforce, fall in love, get married, eventually buy a house and have children all depends on a gradual move up the economic ladder.
“That trajectory is interrupted if people feel they can’t, if they’re not secure in terms of their financial future,” Seljak said.
Even middle class origins, two incomes and university educations don’t make it easy to get married, said Salt + Light TV producer and host Alicia Ambrosio as she celebrated her third month of marriage. The 33-year-old and her Portuguese husband met at World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011, and have been a serious couple ever since, with husband Carlos Ferreira moving to Toronto to be near Ambrosio that year.
“Even with two incomes, we dragged our feet for a long time. We didn’t think it was possible,” said Ambrosio.
When the couple finally did walk down the aisle, they did it atypically — booking a last-minute wedding for a small group, no wedding dress, no honeymoon, no frills.
“I was going to trick the system any way I can,” said Ambrosio. “We really felt like that was the only way we could actually do it, even in our situation.”
The average wedding in Canada actually costs $31,110, honeymoon included, according to WeddingBells.ca. Subtract the $5,470 average for a honeymoon and you still get $25,640. And remember, it’s an average.
Rev. Michael Bechard sees a lot of pre-wedding jitters.
“I think one of the things they’re afraid of is entering into marriage and coming out on the other side of the celebration with tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” said the chaplain at King’s College at Western University in London, Ont.
“There’s also other contributing factors moving forward, both in terms of houses, paying off student loans, having children. The list is really kind of endless.”
“In Toronto it’s the cost of housing,” said marriage counsellor Denis Costello of Catholic Family Services of Toronto.
As of January, the Royal LePage House Price Survey was reporting that the average price for a standard condominium in Toronto stood at $384,680. Detached bungalow prices have increased 11.6 per cent in the last year to come in at an average of $647,535.
“We’re quite realistic about the fact that we’re probably not going to own here (in Toronto) for a very long time, if ever,” said Ambrosio. “Even with two incomes, we don’t qualify for much of a mortgage.”
At 24, Patrick Williams and his 22-year-old wife Jacinta know they are not a normal married couple for their generation. Most of Patrick’s high school friends are years away from even considering marriage. But the young web designer has ensconced himself in a highly Catholic environment, working for the Jesuits. He and Jacinta had lots of encouragement to make the commitment early.
“Part of it is just trusting God. That’s a large part of it,” he said, three months after the wedding. “But also there’s a lot to the notion that there’s benefits of struggling through these things together.”
Patrick and Jacinta didn’t want to live together, as most of their peers do.
“It brings a couple closer together, going through these struggles younger in life than going through struggles independently then making a commitment.”
To some extent it’s a chicken-and-egg question. Are married people richer because they’re married? Or are richer people better able to sustain married life?
“It’s quite striking how living arrangements are quite important in explaining economic well being,” said King’s University College sociologist Don Kerr.
According to Kerr’s research, the median income of Canada’s two-parent families with children in 2010 was $91,300. For unattached individuals it was $28,500.
Canada really needs better family policy aimed at making marriage available to Canadians regardless of income. While the child tax benefit has helped many poor families with children, income splitting isn’t really a family friendly policy, said Kerr.
“You’re sort of helping out those who are not really needing it that much in the name of family values,” he said.
For Seljak, marriage has become a social justice issue.
“Pope Francis is spot on with his concerns about how the overall shape of society is forming people’s values and influencing their behaviours. We can be very pro-marriage, but if we develop a society that makes marriage more difficult for individuals, all we’re doing is taunting and judging people who cannot live up to our moral standards,” he said.