All over the industrialized world, marriage is in decline. Cohabitation, which has waxed as marriage has waned, is a much less stable and more varied relational form than marriage. Because of its relative instability and variability, cohabitation presents public-policy and fact-finding challenges that formal marriage does not. Formal marriage is also associated with a range of health, wealth and happiness benefits to adult partners and their children. Because formal marriage and childbearing within such unions offer public advantages that informal unions do not, public policies designed to encourage individuals to delay childbearing until marriage are desirable. So are policies that encourage couples who have marital understandings to formalize their unions through ceremonial marriage. In order to effectively design such policies, however, we need to understand why formal marriage is in decline. This paper critically examines current economic and cultural explanations for these phenomena and analyzes the public policy implications of these explanations. It concludes that well-designed policies that promote the socioeconomic conditions in which successful marriage flourishes, reduce economic disincentives to marry, and offer clear dividing lines between formal marriage and cohabitation are all supported by the evidence. These policies do not have the capacity to bring back the world in which marriage and marital child-bearing were almost universal, but they may have the capacity to make a difference at the margins. They do not appear to hold any potential for causing harm and they may also promote other improvements in family relationships and functioning.
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