New Report Calls Marriage Gap a Social Tragedy
The conviction is growing that a “marriage gap” separates contemporary college-educated Americans from their less-educated counterparts. The 2010 “State of Our Unions” report, released Dec. 6 by the National Marriage Project headquartered at the University of Virginia, focuses on this gap, calling it a social tragedy.
“As marriage — an institution to which all could once aspire — increasingly becomes the private playground of those already blessed with abundance, a social and cultural divide is growing. It threatens the American experiment in democracy and should be of concern to every civic and social leader in our nation,” says the report, authored by W. Bradford Wilcox, the Marriage Project’s director.
I’ve discussed the marriage gap previously in this space. Researchers have been finding that, at least in statistical terms, the prospects of marital success and happiness are higher for better-educated Americans — whose earnings as a couple also tend to be higher – than others. What jumped out at me in the new “State of Our Unions” report was its accent on what the marriage gap means for the future of society.
The annual report monitors the health of marriage and family life in America. It investigates the state of marriage among young adults and assesses the outlook for marriage as an institution. The report is published jointly by the National Marriage Project and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.
The 2010 report is concerned particularly with the outlook for marriage among “Middle Americans.” It says, “The newest and perhaps most consequential marriage trend of our time concerns the broad center of our society, where marriage, that iconic middle-class institution, is foundering.”
Marriage is “in trouble” in middle America, according to the report, though “among the affluent, marriage is stable and appears to be getting even stronger”; for the poor, “marriage continues to be fragile and weak.”
Middle Americans are described by the report as “those with a high-school but not a (four-year) college degree.” In fact, some have some college education. They represent 58 percent of the population between the ages of 25 and 60. “They are not upscale, but they are not poor,” it says.
“For the last few decades, the retreat from marriage has been regarded largely as a problem afflicting the poor. But today, it is spreading into the solid middle of the middle class,” the report observes; among Middle Americans “rates of nonmarital childbearing and divorce are rising, even as marital happiness is falling.”
Various factors contributing to the marriage outlook for middle Americans as a group are discussed in the report, among them a fear that the American “ideal” for marriage is not accessible to them; a disengagement from social and religious institutions that often lend support to couples; not-rare behaviors that “endanger their prospects for marital success”; and diminished job prospects.
“In today’s information economy, the manual skills of moderately educated Americans are now markedly less valued than the intellectual and social skills of the highly educated,” the report observes.
It insists that marriage still is “held in high regard across social classes in America.” Even among teenagers, “marriage and family life remain very important goals,” though teens at the same time “demonstrate increasing approval of a range of nonmarital lifestyles that stand in tension with these goals,” the report notes.
In fact, it says, “more that 75 percent of Americans believe that ‘being married’ is an important value,” and “Middle Americans are no less likely than upscale Americans to value marriage in the abstract.”
However, “moderately educated Americans” in recent years “have become less likely to form stable, high-quality marriages, while highly (college) educated Americans (who make up 30 percent of the adult population) have become more likely to do so.”
Today, the United States increasingly is “a separate and unequal nation when it comes to the institution of marriage,” according to the report. It says marriage “is in danger of becoming a luxury good attainable only to those with the material and cultural means to grab hold of it.”
The “State of Our Unions” calls it “one of the great social tragedies of our time that marriage is flourishing among the most advantaged and self-actualized groups in our society and waning among those who could most benefit from its economic and child-rearing partnership.”
Why should society care about this development? Because “marriage is not merely a private arrangement between two persons,” the “State of Our Unions” responds. Instead, it says, marriage “is a core social institution” that helps “ensure the economic, social and emotional welfare of countless children, women and men.”
The “retreat from marriage among the moderately educated middle is placing the American Dream beyond the reach of too many Americans,” the report comments.
If marriage in America becomes achievable only for the highly educated, “the American experiment itself will be at risk,” the report says. Should this happen, “it is likely that we will witness the emergence of a new society,” it says.
For, “the disappearance of marriage in Middle America would endanger the American Dream, the emotional and social welfare of children and the stability of the social fabric.”
It won’t be possible simply to “turn the clock back” in order to “recreate the social and cultural conditions of some bygone era” and to address these marriage-gap challenges, the report says. It nonetheless proposes some steps toward renewing “the fortunes of marriage in Middle America” and closing “the marriage gap between the moderately and the highly educated.”
For example, the report encourages the pursuit of “public policies that strengthen the employment opportunities of the high-school educated.” Also encouraged are cultural reforms seeking “to reconnect marriage and parenthood for all Americans,” and “efforts to strengthen religious and civic institutions that lend our lives meaning, direction and a measure of regard for our neighbors — not to mention our spouses.”