Marginalizing Marriage

Why This Trend Threatens Society

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, SEPT. 4, 2011 ( One of the factors behind the recent riots in England, according to a number of commentators, is the breakdown of marriage and family life. If this is so then the conclusions of a recent report on marriage present a worrying situation. 

Last month the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institute published a study titled, «The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America.» It examined the marital status of the 51% of young adults – aged 25 to 34 – who have completed high school but don’t have college degrees.

Marriage is going well in the group of wealthier college-educated Americans, who generally marry before the birth of their first child. In fact, the report pointed out the divorce levels in this sector have fallen to a level comparable to the early 70s.

According to the authors of the report, W. Bradford Wilcox and Andrew J. Cherlin, it is a different story for the less well-educated who have high levels of cohabitation and divorce. «The nation’s retreat from marriage, which started in low-income communities in the 1960s and 1970s, has now moved into Middle America,» the report stated.

In recent years moderately educated American women were more than seven times as likely to have a child outside of marriage compared to college educated women. Overall, 44% of births to high school educated women are out of wedlock. This compares to 54% for women who did not finish high school and 6% for women with a degree.

The increase in births outside marriage is due to the higher levels of cohabitation and there has been little change in the number of births to women living alone. The increase is a cause for concern as children are best off in a stable married family, the report said.

According to recent data cohabitating couples are inherently unstable and 65% of children in these situations will see the relationship break up by the time they are twelve years old. This compares to just 24% for children born in marriages.


The report cited both cultural and economic factors as being behind the changed situation. The job market for moderately educated men has deteriorated considerably leaving them with less stable jobs and lower real wages than a generation ago.

At the same time there is the general expectation that a good job and income is needed in order to commit to marriage, so cohabitation is taken up as the alternative, while they wait for the right job to occur.

Still, this alone is not a complete explanation. The report observed that in the past, for example in the Great Depression, economic hardship did not lead to major changes in family life.

The report singled out three major cultural shifts that have played a crucial role in changing the situation.

Firstly, attitudes towards sexual activity and childbearing outside marriage have changed. There is much more acceptance these days of such behavior and this, combined with the introduction of contraception, has greatly weakened the traditional family values that once reigned in this sector of society.

Low-income unmarried women often go ahead and have children, rather than wait for a better situation as this involves the risk of remaining childless. This mentality has now spread to the moderately educated women.

Secondly, there has been a significant decline in religious participation among people in Middle America. Compared with the 70s weekly religious attendance dropped from 40 to 28%.

Thirdly, the legal framework affecting family life has undergone a major re-orientation. With the introduction of no-fault divorce it changed from being supportive of the marriage bond to emphasizing individual rights.


Bringing about a change in the trend to cohabitation and high divorce levels is no easy task, the report admitted. Among the measures suggested were the following.

– Provide improved training for jobs that are in the middle range of skills which will enable the moderately educated to find better and stable jobs.

– Change the way welfare payments are calculated from a situation where marriage is penalized due to cohabitating couples losing financial support once they marry. Child tax credits should also be augmented.

– Try to change cultural attitudes in the same way that campaigns are carried out against smoking and drunk driving.

– Invest in educational programs for disadvantaged pre-school children as a way to boost the employment prospects of future generations.

– Reform divorce laws to mitigate the consequences of no-fault divorce. This could include educational programs and also mandatory waiting periods for couples with children.

Coincidentally one of the authors of the Brookings report was involved in another publication regarding marriage and cohabitation that was published a bit later on in August. The director of the National Marriage Project, W. Bradford Wilcox, along with 18 other family scholars, issued the third edition of the report «Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences.»

According to the report the intact, biological married family is still the «gold standard» when it comes for what is best for children. In addition, marriage is a major contributor to the common good, with benefits for the economy, health and education.

After analyzing hundreds of reports on marriage and family life the authors had both good and bad news.

The good news is that divorce has declined, almost to the level it was at before the 70s. The bad news is that this improvement has been more than offset due to the increase in cohabitation. This means that nowadays children are more likely to experience cohabitation than be affected to a divorce.

Only 55% of 16-year-olds were living with both parents in the early 2000s, compared with 66% twenty years previously.

The instability of cohabitation has a negative impact on children, according to the report. Children are three times more likely to be abused in cohabitating households thatn those in intact, biological-married parent homes. Drup use, problems at school and bad behavior are also more common.


These changes in family life are far from being limited to the United States. The cover story of the Aug. 20 edition of The Economist magazine looked at what it titled «The flight from marriage» in Asia.

In Japan, for example, while 20 years ago the percentage of women who cohabited was in the single digits it is now up to 20%. The average age at marriage is now much higher. In the richer Asian countries it is now 29-30 for women, and 31-33 for men. The mean average at marriage has risen by five years in the last three decades in some countries.

Moreover, more women are not marrying. In 2010 one-third of Japanese women entering their 30s were single. In the same year 37% of Taiwanese women aged 30-34 were single, along with 21% of those in the bracket of 35-39. This is a striking change, the article pointed out, considering that only a few decades ago only 2% of women in this age group were single in most Asian countries.

Divorce rates, while still considerably lower than in the West, have doubled since the 80s.

Family life has traditionally been very important in Asia. As recently as 1994 Lee Kuan Yew, formerly prime minister of Singapore, attributed Asia’s economic success to the strength of family ties and the virtues learnt in family life.

With marriage in trouble in both the West and Asia the cost of not doing anything to remedy this is simply too high to allow this trend to continue.

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