The institution of marriage is in trouble. Over the past 60 years, the marriage rate among Americans has declined steadily and there is no sign that the trend is coming to an end. Census statistics show that traditional marriage, once the norm, is becoming a rite for the educated and the wealthy.
The numbers tell a story of societal change that deserves more public attention than it tends to get. In 1950, married couples accounted for 78 percent of American household. Now, it’s barely half (51 percent) of all households. Last year, the U.S. passed a remarkable demographic milestone – for the first time, more women under 30 gave birth outside marriage (53 percent) than inside it. For women of all ages, the percentage is 44 percent.
“We are witnessing a striking exodus from marriage,” says a new study by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. That exodus began in the 1960s. It echoes similar patterns in many other industrialized countries and over the past decade has accelerated most rapidly among Americans who graduated from high school but have no college degree.
The study calls them Middle America and says that the decline of marriage in their ranks “ imperils the Middle Class and fosters a society of winners and losers…Marriage is an emerging dividing line between America’s moderately educated middle and those with college degrees. “
There are striking similarities between what happened to black Americans six decades ago and what is happening now to white working class Americans, according to Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution , where she track the state of American families. Now, the breakdown of traditional families applies to working-class Americans of all races.
“These trends threaten to make the U.S. a much more class-based society over time,” Sawhill writes in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly magazine. “The well-educated and upper middle class parents who are still forming two-parent families are able to invest time and resources in their children – time and resources that lower- and working class single mothers, however impressive their efforts to be both good parents and breadwinners, simply do not have.”
A 2010 study by the Pew Research center found that a marriage gap has been growing side-by-side with a socio-economic gap over the past half century. In 1960, the median household income of married people was 12 percent higher than that of singles. Now, the gap is more than 40 percent.
Attempts to promote marriage through government programs have had limited results. The downward trends have not been halted by President George W. Bush’s 2002 Health Marriage Initiative, a program endorsed by President Barack Obama. It’s meant to help couples “ acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage.”
It did not, however, remove a financial disincentive under a welfare system that grants greater benefits to a mother who remains single than to a woman married to a working husband.
But there are factors other than economic calculations for the decline of marriage. Polls show that a sizeable segment of society (more than 40 percent) considers marriage an obsolete institution, not necessary to have companionship, sex, and children. Co-habitation is becoming the new normal.
While men and women have been turning away from traditional marriage, the past few decades have seen a rising clamor from gay people for the right to get married. Gay marriage is now legal in nine U.S. states ( as well as in 11 countries around the world). But it remains a topic of heated debate.
It has been the wrong debate and the energy spent on it should have been focused on saving the institution of marriage – no matter between whom — instead of trying to block homosexual unions. So says David Blankenhorn, once one of the most prominent anti-gay marriage crusaders in the country.
In January, he and 70 academics and writers from both sides of the political spectrum signed “a call for a new conversation of marriage.” The document rejects “the conventional wisdom that marriage –except possibly gay marriage – is something that can’t be fixed.”
But, it adds, “no trend in our society, including the marriage trend, is preordained, or immune from human decision-making, and no problem we face –this is America, after all – is so large that we must become passive and servile in its face.”