Marriage and Middle America

Rescuing the Forgotten

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, DEC. 21, 2012 ( More than half of births among women in the United States under the age of 30 now occur outside of marriage. This was one of the points made in a report published last Sunday.

“The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” was the latest edition of the State of Our Unions report, an annual joint publication of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values in New York City.

The focus of the report was on what it termed “Middle America,” that is, the nearly 60% of Americans who have completed high school, but do not have a four-year college degree.

Among that group, 44% of children are now born outside of marriage, up sharply from 13% in the 1980s.

“Marriage in Middle America is at a tipping point, with unwed childbearing threatening to become a new norm,” said report co-author W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project.

“The children of Middle America, already vulnerable to economic challenges in their communities, are exposed to even greater risks when their parents are unable to form and sustain a healthy marriage,” said report lead author Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

The report noted that the disappearance of marriage in Middle America is associated with the disappearance of the middle class. If marriage could be strengthened then there would be a reduction in inequality and an increase in social opportunity.

“The retreat from marriage is both a cause and a consequence of increasing inequality in America,” said report co-author David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values.


The report noted a contradiction between what they estimated at $50 billion spent on weddings each year, plus the strident debate over same-sex “marriage,” while at the same time there is “a striking exodus from marriage, especially among high school but not college educated young people.”

“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 commented.

“Why should we care?” The report asked this question and went on to ask if marriage is just a private arrangement, or is it, a “complex social institution.”

“Marriage helps to unite the needs and desires of couples and the children their unions produce,” the authors of the report explained.

Some, the report noted, say that cohabitation is simply replacing marriage as the situation in which children are raised. Cohabitation, however, is much more unstable than marriage. In fact, cohabiting couples who have a child together are about twice as likely as married couples to break up before their child turns 12.

“This decline of marriage in Middle America imperils the middle class and fosters a society of winners and losers,” the report stated.

There is an increasing division between children born to married, well-educated parents and those born in fragmented families, who are very likely to follow the example of their parents, “and to experience the heartache, hardship, and risks that result.”

We have a “marriage challenge” the report declared. Do we react with pessimism, or perhaps rely on family planning or contraception — strategies, the report noted, which have not been very successful.

Experts who support such efforts, the report continued, merely ask for more investment in family planning, job training, and post-secondary education.

“It is only with respect to marriage formation that the policy world seems to have decided that very little or nothing can be done.”


What should be done, then, the report continued. Among the recommendation were the following.

+ End the marriage penalty for low-income Americans, and for unwed mothers.  Medicaid policies, the report commented, are discouraging parents from marrying and therefore increasing the long-term risk of poverty and welfare dependency.

+ Triple the child tax credit for children under three.

+ Help young men to become marriageable men.

+ Raise the earning potential, stability, and pride of young adults through apprenticeships.

+ Reform the criminal justice system. Among all African American men born since the mid-1960s, more than 20% will go to prison, nearly twice the number that will graduate college, the report noted. Inmates of prisons need to be better prepared for life outside once they leave prison.

+ End anonymous fatherhood. If a woman gets pregnant after a one-night stand, the father can be held accountable financially for that child for 18 years, the report commented. By contrast if a woman buys anonymous sperm from a sperm bank, the anonymous man who provided his sperm walks away with no obligation.

+ Improve pre-marital education and also promote reconciliation for couples who wish to divorce.

These and other recommendations in the report urge support for marriage as a way to strengthen society. While urgent fiscal and monetary problems occupy the headlines, a no less urgent social problem, that of marriage, awaits a solution.

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