Paul Merivil and Litisha Willoughby moved in together while they were dating, but the decision never quite sat right with them.
Marriage, they decided, was the answer.
“It’s the right thing in God’s eyes,” said Willoughby, who met her fiancé in March. They exchanged vows Thursday afternoon in a sunlit afternoon ceremony outside Love’s Wedding Chapel on Wrightsboro Road.
Marriage, say experts and studies, is key to the economic health of a community. Communities with a low marriage rate and a high rate of single-parent households, such as Richmond County, typically have a corresponding high level of poverty.
In Richmond County, 47 percent of the single-woman households with children younger than 18 are below the poverty level, higher than the state average of nearly 39 percent. The rate climbs to 53 percent when the children are younger than 5.
The higher poverty rate is attributed to both lower education levels of single mothers and lost income because of absent fathers.
In contrast, just 10 percent of married couples with children live in poverty in Richmond County. Compared with Aiken and Columbia counties, Richmond has the fewest households headed by married couples at 36 percent. The percentage is 63 percent in Columbia County and 51 percent in Aiken County.
“There’s a lot of research out that ties marriage to financial stability, both for the individual and for us as a society,” said Sheila Weber, the executive director of National Marriage Week USA, which started Feb. 7 and ends Tuesday. “With marriage, there’s less teen pregnancy, less trouble in schools, less trouble with the law. Forty percent of American babies today are born out of wedlock. We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t believe there’s a cost attached to that.”
Families fractured by divorce or unwed childbearing cost Georgia taxpayers at least $1.46 billion each year, according to a 2008 study by the Georgia Family Council and a national research group. The total includes foregone tax revenues; costs on the justice system; and the expense of some government programs, including food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid, child welfare programs and school lunch and breakfast programs.
The trends are reflected across other local municipalities. In Aiken County, 45 percent of single mothers live in poverty, but just 10 percent of married couples with children do. In Columbia County, those rates are 24 percent and 3 percent.
DEVON HARRIS SEES the impact of broken families in his work as a gang intervention specialist at Full Circle Refuge, a youth ministry that offers mentoring to at-risk youth and those re-entering the community from the juvenile justice system.
“Right now, every kid I work with comes from a single-parent home,” he said. “The majority of them don’t have a dad at home, but some of them are also being raised by a grandparent.”
Single women raising children account for a quarter of Georgia’s 1,135,790 households with children younger than 18.
They account for nearly one half of households with children in Richmond County, one-third of households with children in Aiken County, and one-fifth of households with children in Columbia County.
Cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood have all grown more prevalent, while marriage rates have been in decline for four decades.
In 1960, 72 percent of adults in the U.S. were married; today just 51 percent are, according to census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
OFTEN, THOSE IN serious relationships must be convinced of the benefits of marriage before they’re willing to take the leap, said Susan Swanson, the owner of the Augusta Care Pregnancy Center, which offers a class on healthy marriages.
Every Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m., men and women gather at the center’s downtown location for the relationship course. For many, the group offers a safe place to air concerns about marriage.
“We have to rebuild the concept of marriage in their minds,” Swanson said. “They’re afraid of marriage after watching their parents get divorced … For the first time in their life, they’re seeing marriage as a positive.”
Nationally, 9.6 percent of men and 12.6 percent of women are divorced.
The rates are higher in Richmond County, where 12.3 percent of men and 14.9 percent of women are divorced, but lower in Columbia County, where 7.7 percent of men and 11.9 percent of women are divorced.
In Aiken, the men’s rate is slightly higher than the national average, at 9.8 percent, but the rate for women is lower, at 11.3 percent.
Roger Rollins, the executive director of the Family and Marriage Coalition of Aiken, believes the divorce rate could be lowered if more couples sought programs and training that taught them how to “stay married.”
“You have to teach people how to be married. It’s not a given,” he said. “You don’t have to have any training to get married or have kids. They’re the two most difficult things in life, and people aren’t being equipped to do them well. It’s got to be OK to say ‘My marriage is in trouble.’ It’s got to be OK to say, ‘We need help.’”
The council offers premarital counseling, mentoring programs for husbands and wives, and seminars on healthy relationships.
“We feel the impact of broken marriages, even if we don’t see them, even when we think ‘not on my street,’ or, ‘not in my backyard,” Rollins said. “When I look at society today, I see it’s falling apart. When marriages fail, society fails.”