As marriage goes, so goes the American dream

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From 2001 to 2011, the marriage rate dropped by 10.3 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women ages 15 and older.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, and U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey.

A half-century ago, marriage was the cornerstone for adulthood, and the anchor for the bearing and rearing of children. This is no longer the case: The marriage rate has fallen by approximately 50 percent since the 1960s, and the divorce rate about doubled from 1960 to 1980 (it has since decreased). Consequently, stable marriage is less likely to ground and guide the experience of adults—and especially children—in America. Indeed, the nation’s retreat from marriage means that only about half of the nation’s adults are currently married, and that about half of the nation’s children will spend some time outside an intact, married home.

This retreat from marriage is rooted in shifts in public policy (e.g., a tax and transfer system that often penalizes marriage), the economy (e.g., the declining real wages of men without college degrees), and the culture (e.g., an increasingly laissez-faire view of family forms).[1] But of what consequence is this retreat? Many academics and commentators contend that the family is just changing, not declining.[2]

But this Panglossian view of the retreat from marriage neglects three fundamental social facts:

  • The retreat from marriage disadvantages children, especially children from poor and working-class homes most affected by this retreat, as they move into adulthood. Children whose parents fail to get, and stay, married to one another are more likely to end up pregnant as teenagers, to run afoul of the law, to flounder in school, and to end up idle as adults, as the work of sociologists Paul Amato and Sara McLanahan makes clear.[3] So, if you care about the well-being of children, you should care about marriage.
  • The retreat from marriage fuels growing social and economic inequalities between highly educated and less-educated Americans. The research tells us, for instance, that a substantial share of the growth in family economic inequality since the 1970s can be attributed to the fact that less-educated Americans are less likely to get and stay married.[4] So, if you are worried about growing inequality in America, you should care about marriage.
  • The retreat from marriage is a drag on the American Dream. Many social drivers of opportunity—high school and college graduation rates, for instance—have improved over the past half-century. But we have seen no overall increase in economic mobility in America. What gives? Part of the story here, it would seem, is that declines in marriage and family stability have offset the improvements the nation has witnessed in other drivers of opportunity. A recent study from Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues, for instance, indicates that when it comes to the mobility of poor children in communities across the nation, “the strongest and most robust predictor is the fraction of children with single parents.”[5] Unfortunately, this is one driver of immobility that has increased over the past half-century. So, if you care about renewing the American Dream, you should care about marriage.

 

Rebuilding a marriage culture should not be a matter of nostalgia for a bygone era. If policymakers and Americans generally are concerned about boosting the welfare of children, bridging this nation’s social and economic divides, and renewing the American Dream, they should think long and hard about public policies that would increase the odds that ordinary Americans recognize marriage as a key to their—and their country’s—future.

Read W. Bradford Wilcox's article at The Heritage Foundation here.

W. Bradford Wilcox is Director of the National Marriage Project, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Endnotes

[1] W. Bradford Wilcox, ed., The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2010, National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values, 2010, (accessed May 13, 2014).

[2] Judith Stacey, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’: A Response to David Popenoe,” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 55, No. 3 (August 1993), (accessed May 13, 2014), and Katie Roiphe, “In Defense of Single Motherhood,” The New York Times, August 11, 2012, (accessed May 13, 2014).

[3] Paul R. Amato, “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generation,” The Future of Children, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall 2005), (accessed May 13, 2014), and Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[4] Molly A. Martin, “Family Structure and Income Inequality in Families with Children, 1976 to 2000,” Demography, Vol. 43, No. 3 (August 2006) (accessed May 13, 2014).

[5] W. Bradford Wilcox, “Family Matters: What’s the Most Important Factor Blocking Social Mobility? Single Parents, Suggests a New Study,” Slate, January 22, 2014, (accessed May 13, 2014).

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