Which costs more, the wedding or the marriage?

The bride was radiant in her satiny blue dress, her hair done up in little ringlets, standing on the stage with her squirming daughter and the young man who had been her husband now for about three minutes. No stained glass filtered the sunlight streaming in the drop-in centre windows, but the trio emitted their own glow. He fidgeted in his suit. All of them had trouble keeping their eyes closed during the minister's prayer.

After the feast that followed, as I began to help stack chairs and clear tables, I overheard the newlyweds discussing what to do next. He wanted to go out with his friends. She wanted to hang out with hers. Could someone look after their daughter for a few hours?

Most weddings I've attended wrapped up with the giddy newlyweds fluttering off to a sunsoaked honeymoon beach somewhere. But this is a slightly different story.

Earlier this year Peter Jon Mitchell, a researcher with the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC), wrote a column responding to In from the Margins, a report which revealed that more Canadians are trapped in poverty than ever before. Mitchell made a case for marriage, touting it as a powerful tool to combat poverty.

"Children from married parent families are more likely to do better at school and achieve better financial well-being. They are less likely to become welfare dependent. In short, children from stable, married parent families are less likely to find themselves in poverty," Mitchell wrote.

While it's true that research finds more single parents among low-income layers of the social strata than the middle or upper class sections, I think the data Mitchell draws his conclusions from points to something else: poverty makes it hard to get married.
A wedding isn't a cheap party to throw. Besides money, weddings also require social capital—people willing to help make it happen.

I live in a part of Winnipeg many people avoid if they can. It has a reputation for crime and poverty. While it's true the neighbourhood has one of the lowest average income rates of any part of the city, it's also where you're most likely to see children building snowforts in their front yards or sledding hysterically down snowy embankments on a sunny winter day.

This part of town is full of families—even if many of them don't have legal or social stamps of approval. Sixty-seven per cent of the William Whyte neighbourhood population is unmarried, separated or divorced, compared to the city average of 46 per cent, according to 2006 census data. Breakups are common. Enduring marriages are not, which may be one reason many couples don't choose to marry in the first place. When families break up, children suffer, often getting shuffled around to live with one parent or the other, a grandparent, uncle or cousin.

The beaming couple trying to hold their daughter still for the pastor's blessing was swimming against the current. They already have a child. Very few of their peers are married. Both of them are young. He is still in high school. Neither of them have high-paying jobs.

Even though this couple wants their daughter's parents to be united before God and their community, they couldn't afford to rent a church, buy a wedding dress, hire a photographer, send out invitations and feed all their friends and family members. Never mind the honeymoon.

But something surprising happened. A group of people decided to put their belief in marriage into action and to honour this couple's courage. A local drop-in centre offered the venue; some artists got busy making it look elegant; a photographer volunteered his time; someone bought bouquets and everyone brought a potluck dish. The night before the wedding one indefatigable seamstress stayed up half the night modifying a second-hand dress to fit the bride.

A wedding isn't a marriage. A wedding is a party or a signature or a whispered promise that happens once. A marriage is a decision that must be made every day—whether a wedding happened or not. The radiant couple whose wedding I witnessed will need the same people who helped throw this party to support them as they figure out how to live a marriage.

In my opinion, the marriage matters more than the wedding. It's also my opinion that a healthy wedding does a lot to set the stage for a healthy marriage.

So if we want to enlist healthy marriages in the fight against poverty, let's start looking around our communities to find the people who believe in marriage—in the truest sense of the word—and try to figure out how we can help them surmount some of the obstacles in their way.

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