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Retreat from Marriage Reaches Working, Middle Class

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January 12, 2015

New trends underscore need to strengthen family stability

Marriage is in decline in America, but recent studies have highlighted the latest trends that will help religious and civic institutions find new paths to strengthen marriage, the pillar of family life.

Between 1970 and 2009, the annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult women in the United States declined by more than 50 percent, according to the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. The American divorce rate is nearly twice that of 1960, with nearly half of marriages now ending in divorce.

The sequence of love, marriage and then having children is also vanishing. Nationally, 40.7 percent of births were to unmarried mothers in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In California, 40 percent of babies born in 2012 -- 202,026 children -- were to unmarried mothers, according to a Kids Count analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

“Socio-cultural realities” often “end in crushing families,” the final report of the Synod of Bishops on “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” held in Rome last October, stated.

But new research will help religious, civic and public policy organizations develop targeted solutions. A report by the Brookings Institute, The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America, authored by family scholars W. Bradford Wilcox and Andrew J. Cherlin, examined marriage trends as they relate to family income, age and education. Wilcox, who spoke to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June 2014, described a “disconnect” from marriage in poorer communities and a growing “marriage divide” in this nation, primarily by economic status and education.

The study found that:

  • The rise of non-marital births, which started in low-income communities in the 1960s and 1970s, has now reached the working middle class. More and more young adults with less education in working-class neighborhoods are “having children in brittle cohabiting unions,” and those who do marry are at a high risk of divorce.
  • In affluent neighborhoods where many college-educated Americans live, “marriage is alive and well and stable families are the rule.” Nearly all young Americans with college degrees, although they may cohabit with their partners, marry before having their first child. The divorce rate in this group has declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s.
  • Among moderately-educated Americans – those who have completed high school but not college—marriage has declined. This group constitutes 51 percent of the young adult population, aged 25-34. Moderately educated middle-class young adults are dramatically more likely than highly educated Americans to have children outside of marriage. They are more than twice as likely to divorce as college-educated Americans during the first ten years of marriage, and the divorce divide between these two groups has been growing since the 1970s.

The study also examined the causes for these trends, including the decline of reasonably-paying jobs over the past few decades. Young men with only a high-school education are especially prone to earn lower wages and work in temporary or part-time jobs.

Cultural changes are also a powerful factor. These include: (1) new norms about sexual activity, births and marriage; (2) decline in religious participation; and (3) laws, such as “no-fault” divorces laws, that uphold individual rights rather than the institution of marriage.

From the 1970s to the present, for example, the share of moderately-educated Americans attending church about once a week or more fell 12 percentage points, from 40 to 28 percent. For the college educated, it fell four percentage points, from 38 to 34 percent.

The study offers some recommendations on jobs and tax policy and a social marketing campaign “to encourage young adults to follow a success sequence characterized by finishing high school, getting a job, getting married, and then having children.”

Strategies on how to address the special challenges to stable married life, as a vocation and the bedrock of society, will be further examined at the Oct. 2015 Vatican summit on the family.

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