Marriage Matters in Middle America

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December 31, 2010

by Josh Good

After the fanfare surrounding the successful repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this month, it would be easy to overlook a recent pair of landmark studies that examine Americans’ changing views on marriage in the last 50 years.

The first, a 114-page report from the Pew Research Center and its companion Time cover story, “Who Needs Marriage?,” points out that far fewer U.S. residents are married today (52%) than in 1960 (72%). Out-of-wedlock birthrates have increased—most notably in minority communities:  among African-American women giving birth in 2008, 72% were unmarried, compared with 53% of Hispanic women and 29% of white women.  Moreover, according to new Census Bureau data, the number of Americans who cohabitate has nearly doubled since 1990.

Earlier this month, the National Marriage Project based at the University of Virginia released its annual study, The State of Our Unions, suggesting the biggest attitudinal changes toward marriage are among the “moderately educated,” defined as those with a high-school but not a four-year college degree. 58% of U.S. adults fit this category, and divorce is up for this group—as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted.  As religious conservatives have climbed the educational ladder in recent decades, their pro-marriage views have become more strongly entrenched among well-educated elites. In the late 2000s only 6% of children born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage, compared with 44% of babies born to moderately educated mothers and 54% of infants born to least-educated mothers.  This poses real risks for a majority of U.S. families, since “family break-up increases the odds that children from Middle America will drop out of high school, end up in trouble with the law, become pregnant as teenagers or otherwise lose their way” (The State of Our Unions, p. xii).

The solution to this disturbing trend must be multi-institutional, not merely government-driven, as the Center’s helpful Guideline on Family reminds us.  Churches, schools, civil society groups and healthcare institutions each have distinct roles to play in strengthening family relationships that are in trouble. Because two-parent families and healthy marriages support child development, government is charged to “uphold the integrity and social viability of families … and support programs that strengthen marriage at the premarital stage and after marriage.”

Are we stepping up to the plate? Yes, but not nearly enough, says the latest Future of Children report from Princeton and Brookings. This year, the Obama Administration funded the last of five years of nationwide marriage and fatherhood initiatives.  Next year, Congress has decided to fund $75 million in Healthy Marriage programs and $75 million in Responsible Fatherhood initiatives—a decision that should in many respects be celebrated, especially since diverse faith-based and grassroots neighborhood groups will be eligible to compete for this new funding.  And yet compared with the $20 billion annual cost of our major welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the $60 billion price tag to support nearly one in seven Americans who received food stamps this year, this is a comparable drop in the bucket. If these programs curb a myriad of behaviors that have negative consequences for children, and could save taxpayers money in the long run, we should invest in them more heavily.

Of course, the jury is still out on that question. While the recent publicly funded marriage and fatherhood programs have no across-the-board evaluation, consulting firms such as my employer ICF and others are gathering together core lessons from nationwide grantees, and this learning should shape new program designs. Yet publicly funded programs are only a small start. Poor kids disconnected from their fathers and “Middle Americans” whose parents have recently divorced need healthy role models from a wide array of civil society organizations, schools, congregations and other settings. As the newly elected Congress considers its growing obligation to confront the deficit, we should empower multi-institutional approaches to strengthening families—especially in settings where this is most needed.

—Josh Good, Technical Specialist, ICF International

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.