Recently, I read an article by Glenn Stanton in The Federalist summarizing some fascinating research on the pursuit of social justice, one of the most hotly debated topics in American society. According to this research, the biggest difference-maker in achieving meaningful progress in social initiatives like income equality, educational success, upward mobility, mental and physical health and personal happiness isn’t exactly revolutionary, non-traditional, or innovative.

It’s marriage.

The well-documented, decades-long research confirms that getting and staying married is the most important ingredient not only in rising above poverty, but also in making a positive and defining difference in the world, regardless of race, ethnicity or social status.

While that probably sounds like the typical conservative Republican narrative on solving the vexing problems surrounding social inequality, the research totally transcends political divides. For example, Jonathon Rauch, a liberal writer for the National Journal, wrote that “marriage is displacing both income and race as the great class divide of the new century.” This conclusion was echoed by the Brookings Institute (not exactly a conservative group) which declared that “the proliferation of single parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970’s.”

I remember hearing about a 1990’s article by Professor Bill Galston, domestic policy advisor in the Clinton Administration, in which he shared three important but very simple steps every young American needs to follow to avoid poverty:

  1. Graduate from high school.
  2. Marry before having a child.
  3. Have that child after age 20.

People who follow all three steps, he reported, have a 92% chance of of avoiding poverty. According to recent research by the Brookings and American Enterprise Institutes, it remains largely true today.

As author and social critic Eric Metaxis reports on the Break Point Podcast, none of this should really come as a surprise. “The family is one of the foundational building blocks of any society. It is where children are born and raised, men and women encourage and bring out each other’s best, traditions are made and passed on, and where belief in God is first transmitted and lived out.”

In his Federalist article, Stanton makes a similar, compelling point about the pervasive influence of strong marriages on broader society:

“Today, many unfortunately believe that to be concerned about what kinds of families adults create and raise children in should be no one’s business. It’s a personal matter. Such people have no idea what a family is or does anthropologically. Each family is as much a public institution as is it private, if not more so. It’s strength and weaknesses are felt throughout each community in countless ways. Government expands as marriage declines.”

In sharing these conclusions, I am in no way suggesting that public policy through government involvement has no place in addressing social justice. It certainly does. But we live in an age in which the institution of marriage is under attack as modern culture redefines its very meaning while greater numbers of young people ignore it. And yet, as Metaxis points out, in light of the fact that so many in our society decry the lack of progress in “social justice,” there is clearly a connection many seem to ignore.

For the past 8 years, I have been privileged to be a Foundation Board member for our local community college (one of highest-rated in the nation). The mission of the college, shared at nearly every meeting, is to equip students to create social and economic wealth in their lifetimes. And while access to education plays a significant role in the pursuit of this worthy and inspiring mission, strengthening marriage, an institution that dates back to the dawn of history, may well be the most important mission of all.

Did you grow up with examples of strong marriages in your life? Or marriages that weren’t so strong and healthy? What influence do you feel these marriages had on your own relationships, both growing up and into adulthood? I’d love to hear your feedback.