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Marriage on the decline in Middle America

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 28 2010 11:00 a.m. MST

A couple celebrates their wedding reception at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City last June.

Matt Gillis, Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Whoever said, "All you need is love," must have forgotten to mention money, religion, age and an education when it comes to marriage.

Two recent studies have found a decline in marriage among "Middle Americans," who are defined as the 58 percent of adults who graduated high school with possibly some secondary education, but without a four-year college degree.

Over the last two months, researchers from the Pew Research Center and The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia noted that historically Americans who were highly educated were less likely to marry or be religious, while those less educated favored the two practices. As times have changed, the attitudes towards marriage and religion have reversed.

In a Pew study conducted last month called The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families, researchers found that in 2008 there was a 16 percentage point gap in marriage rates between college graduates, 64 percent of whom were married, and those with a high school diploma or less (48 percent). A subsequent study that came out earlier this month from The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia found that adherence to a "marriage mindset," religious attendance and faith in marriage as a way of life are stronger now among the highly educated.

"The retreat from marriage in Middle America means that all too many Americans will not be able to realize the American Dream," W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, told the Deseret News. "Adults and children fortunate enough to live in an intact, married family are much more likely to succeed in school and the workplace, to acquire a home of their own and to experience an upward of mobility."

Wilcox found that in the last 30 years, children born outside of marriage grew from 13 percent to 44 percent among "Middle Americans." The percentage of stable marriages also dropped significantly, from 73 percent to 45 percent during that time period. In contrast, Americans with a college degree fared better, with the percentage of children born outside of marriage climbing from two percent to six percent. Divorce rates dropped from 15 percent to 11 percent and stable marriage fell from 73 percent to 56 percent among that group.

"The problem is that a 'marriage mind set' hasn't caught up with Middle Americans, not to mention less advantaged Americans, " Wilcox said. "We are seeing that divorce is up and there is more cohabiting."

Wilcox says that economic factors are playing a key role for many Middle American men and many men in poor communities because there are fewer stable, decent paying jobs. Because stable employment is still the foundation to a successful marriage to a large degree, particularly the employment of a husband, these men are less attractive in their own eyes and in the eyes of their partner as husbands, Wilcox said.

Ironically, a 2002 study, "Does Marital History Matter? Marital Status and Wealth Outcomes Among Preretirement Adults," from the Journal of Marriage and the Family, showed that individuals who "had been continuously married throughout adulthood had significantly higher levels of wealth than those who were not. Compared to those continuously married, those who never marry have a reduction in wealth of 75 percent, and those who divorced and did not remarry have a reduction of 73 percent."

Wilcox also said that over the last decade there has been a decline of involvement in religious or charitable institutions in American life. Participation in these organizations has dropped the most among Americans who have dropped out of high school, Wilcox said. Wilcox says these institutions teach social skills, build access to social networks, give a sense of meaning to individuals, and a purpose and direction in life.

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