The Marriage Challenge No One Is Talking About
by David Gibson
“As a culture we seem fixated on marriage,” yet the United States is “witnessing a striking exodus from marriage,” according to the annual “State of Our Unions” report released jointly Dec. 16 by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the Institute for American Values in New York.
U.S. culture spends an “extravagant $50 billion” annually on weddings and appears “flooded with marriage talk,” says the report. However, it adds, few are talking about the nation’s declining rate of marriage, especially “among high school but not-college-educated young people.”
A trend within this population suggests that “raising children amid unstable cohabiting relationships and serial partnerships” is at risk of becoming “the new norm.”
Central to the new “State of Our Unions” is a discussion calling for action in the public-policy arena and society at large to help young couples form stronger, healthier marriages. Society must become aware of the marriage decline in what it calls “Middle America” and respond effectively, it proposes.
Alarmingly, it finds that “marriage is rapidly slipping away” in Middle America, which it defines as “the nearly 60 percent of Americans aged 25 to 60 who have a high school but not a four-year college degree.”
The co-authors of this discussion, compellingly titled “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” are:
— W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project.
— Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.
— David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values.
— Robert Lerman, fellow in labor and social policy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
— Linda Malone-Colon, founder of the National Center for African American Marriages and Parenting based at Hampton University in Hampton, Va.
Their report includes numerous public-policy proposals for strengthening marriages among “the 60 percent” and promoting the benefits of marriage.
Proposals to Strengthen Marriage
For example, it urges a tripling of the federal child tax credit to shore up family life’s economic foundations in Middle America. It encourages support for programs that help young men become more marriageable and better husbands and fathers.
One recommendation urges investment in marriage and relationship education programs, particularly those targeting at-risk individuals and couples. Social media campaigns focused on the value of marriage are encouraged too.
Another recommendation, directed at Hollywood and the mass media, says:
“Our nation’s leaders, including the president, must engage Hollywood in a conversation about popular culture ideas about marriage and family formation, including constructive critiques and positive ideas for changes in media depictions of marriage and fatherhood.”
But the authors acknowledge “that the president alone cannot strengthen marriage in America.” For, strengthening marriage will require “a concerted effort that brings together our nation’s leaders from diverse sectors.”
Marriage in Middle America
Not that long ago in America, “as recently as the 1980s,” just “13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers were born outside of marriage,” the new “State of Our Unions” points out. But “by the late 2000s, this figure rose to a striking 44 percent.”
Moreover, it notes, “researchers are finding that the disappearance of marriage in Middle America is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in the same communities.” The report argues that strengthening marriage is vital to opening social opportunity and reducing inequality.
Wilcox commented that marriage in Middle America now “is at a tipping point, with unwed childbearing threatening to become a new norm.”
Much that the report says about the declining rate of marriage and the marriage gap, which favors stability in the unions of better-educated and financially stronger couples, already is known. The 2010 “State of Our Unions” report focused on the marriage gap, saying:
“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.”
The new report observes that today “the average woman bearing a child outside of marriage is a 20-something white woman with a high school degree.” She and her child’s father likely “are beset by economic stress and institutional change on many fronts.”
Couples like this confront job shortages, uncertain health care and the escalating “costs of housing and higher education,” the report explains.
“While most children born outside of marriage are born to cohabiting couples” nowadays, the report indicates that “such unions are far more likely to break up than married ones.”
All Must “Talk About Marriage”
What distinguishes this “State of Our Unions” report is its forceful insistence that though national leaders as yet have paid “scant attention” to these social developments, it is time to change that.
“Going silent on marriage isn’t an option — not if we want the next generation of Americans to thrive,” the report states. It expresses concern that children born or raised outside of marriage are more likely to experience a range of emotional and social problems.
It is lamentable, the report suggests, that “even as unstable cohabiting relationships, breakups and serial partnerships have become increasingly common in Middle American families, our national leaders, presidential candidates and political parties seem to have barely noticed.”
The report considers it noteworthy that “family structure and child well-being were seldom mentioned during the October 2012 presidential debates.” When it comes to marriage formation, it comments, the public-policy world “seems to have decided that very little or nothing can be done.”
But the time has come, the report makes clear, for the nation’s leaders, indeed “all of us,” to “be ready to talk about marriage.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.