Will States Outlaw Child Marriage in America? By Luke Perry and Paul Joyce
Marriage policy has gotten a lot of attention over the last two decades as same sex marriage became a constitutional right. Until recently (examples here and here) much less attention has been granted to minimum age requirements to marry. Most states have a minimum age of 18, but states have a waiver system allowing minors to marry with parental and/or judicial consent. 27 states have no minimum age requirement attached to this waiver process.
People who marry under 18 are diverse in nearly every way but gender. Girls are much more likely than boys to experience this. In New Jersey, for example, approximately 90 percent of the children married between 1995 and 2012 were girls, which is consistent with global trends.
Geography is a consideration as well. Higher rates of teen marriage are found in the Southeast and Mountain West. Subculture helps explain this. Parents can pressure pregnant girls to get married because of religious, social, financial, and immigration related concerns, irrespective of whether the sexual encounter was consensual or resulted from rape.
Girls who marry before the age of 18 face increased physical and psychological health risks, a 50 percent increased likelihood of dropping out of high school and are over 30 percent more likely to live in poverty. The divorce rate for adolescent marriage is nearly 80 percent. Children from these marriages face greater economic deprivation and instability than single mothers who typically have greater opportunity to develop their education and careers.
Former child brides are leading advocates in outlawing child marriage. Results of recent state efforts have been mixed. Last July the Virginia legislature established 18 as the minimum marriage age with an exception for emancipated minors, who can be as young as 16. Texas passed a similar law this month.
A bill prohibiting marriage for people under 18 failed in New Hampshire out of concern it would hurt military couples (in regards to benefits) and increase the number of births out of wedlock. Similarly, New Jersey legislature passed a bill in May prohibiting people under 18 from getting married, but this was recently vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, who suggested 16 should be the floor with judicial approval.
New York recently passed legislation that raises the minimum marriage age to 17 with judicial permission. Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign the bill. Currently 14 year olds in New York State can be legally married and an estimated 3,900 child marriages occurred statewide between 2000 and 2010.
Success of these bills, particularly in big and diverse states like New York, Texas and Virginia, hopefully provide a model for other states to follow suit and address this important, yet overlooked, problem.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Professor of Government at Utica College. His column Sound Off! critiques various aspects of American politics.
Paul Joyce is an MPA Candidate at the University of Albany.