Largely unnoticed and unaddressed, "middle America" is abandoning marriage, with harsh ramifications for children, stability and the future, according to a just-released national report. However, specific family- and marriage-friendly steps can turn it around, marriage proponents say.
They outline their proposal in "The President's Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent," the latest of the annual "The State of Our Unions" reports by the Center for Marriage and Families, which is part of the Institute for American Values. It produced the report, which came out Sunday, with The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
The proposals for improvement include dumping marriage penalties and disincentives that discourage unwed mothers, the poor and those who are older from marrying; increasing the child tax credit; helping young men achieve and thus become more marriageable; offering marriage education for new stepfamilies; and generally investing in relationships. Those initiatives, the report said, "would save taxpayers money and reduce suffering for children and their families."
They define middle America as the nearly 60 percent who have high school diplomas but are not college educated. It is in that large segment of the nation's population that marriage has declined, while it has stayed stable among college graduates. As marriage rates have declined, more babies have been born to unmarried moms, poverty has increased and more.
"The decline of marriage in middle America has been tracking with the decline of the middle class," said one of the authors, Elizabeth Marquardt of FamilyScholars.org, in an interview with the Deseret News. Out-of-wedlock births have "shot up." Decline threatens children "who are already pretty vulnerable," she warned.
What marriage does
"Marriage fosters small cooperative unions — also known as stable families — that enable children to thrive, shore up communities and help family members to succeed during good times and to weather the bad times." If the middle class disappears, the report warned, so does the American dream.
The healthiest families are those where mom and dad married before having kids and where parents are well educated, which provides more financial stability. Marriage, the literal promise between moms and dads, anchors families, Marquardt said. Without good educations and that marriage bond, families are more unstable and the parents more vulnerable to economic forces.
With marriage, studies show family finances tend to improve, as do other indicators of well-being.
"It is true that economic success does put you in a better position to marry and people focus on that," said Robert I. Lerman, fellow at the Urban Institute and a professor of economics at American University and one of the report authors. "I think people should focus at least equally on the fact that marriage helps you gain economic success," including building up assets over time.
Vanishing marriage is a problem that national leaders have met with "silence, tentativeness or, worse, despair," the report said, adding that taking the suggested steps could alter that. Marquardt said accomplishing it would require "finding our marriage voice — a way to start talking about marriage again without it derailing into a heated debate about gay marriage." The report, she noted, takes no position on gay marriage.
"The reward is that for even incremental improvements, there are hundreds of thousands of children whose lives could benefit."
The report authors believe that ending marriage tax penalties and disincentives in entitlement programs is key to making marriage more enticing and attainable for couples. Options could include refunding some of the penalty people give up if they get married. "That sends a strong message marriage matters," said Marquardt.
Right now, some social program support is stripped from people who marry. The group called on the president to back plans to allow people who marry to remain in those programs. That also includes older couples, who won't have children, but who are an example to the young. Over time, she said, marriage helps families be more stable and as they become stable they don't need the benefits and let them go.
"We've socialized in a sense the care of the elderly, which makes sense," she said. "So we need to provide some support to parents who are raising the future taxpayers."
There are different views of what is causing the decline in marriage.
"I think that what we're seeing today is a lot of weakening capabilities of young men," said Lerman. He noted males lag behind females in both college and high school graduation and said he supports trying to expand occupational training, especially apprenticeship, to help young men and young women — but especially men — to gain certain mastery of an occupation they can take pride in.
Not integrating young people into rewarding careers earlier is a mistake that impacts both the labor market and marriage, he said.
What is not being recognized is "the need to create more of a marriage culture and stable couple relationships. This is a critical problem that affects inequality as well as poverty and there are things that might be tried. Whether they'll succeed, I don't know, but they are constructive in their own account, like teaching couple relationship skills that probably would extend to work and other relationships, including with children," he said.
Young people lack role models on relationships, though relationships are critical. It's a life skill they need, like personal finance. That is tackled in schools.
Figuring out why
There's little disagreement that families are breaking down and marriage is declining among the middle class, said June Carbone, law professor and family issues expert from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. There is considerable disagreement about what's causing it and how to fix it.
She was not involved in the State of the Unions report, though she blogged about it. She agrees that family has become the subject of class-based distinction. But she is among those who believe the cause and thus the cure are related to inequality and economics. "I don't care if you emphasize marriage or not, but you ought to be concerned when these things become a marker of class." The lack of a two-parent family impacts the stability of the kids, she said.
"The problem is not family values or marriage looked at in isolation," she told the Deseret News. "The problem is what's happening to the economy and the way men and women match up." She's co-authoring a book on the topic.
The wide economic inequalities produce a mismatch between men and women that translate to fewer marriages and families facing all types of trouble, Carbone said. The gender wage gap has widened since 1990. Among college grads, especially those from families where college is tradition, there's no drop-off in marriage. But among college attendees from families that are not already high income, there exists what she calls a "mismatch." There are more women, and fewer men are deemed marriageable. That combination destabilizes marriage, she said.
"We agree marriage is a problem," Carbone said, "but it's a symptom, not the cause." Her proposed solution is different, too. "Focus on the economy, creation of jobs, good jobs. ... The economic redistribution from the bottom to the top is what's destabilizing families. We think the problem is greater inequality."
When she speaks of inequality, she's talking about "the way men and women match up." Income for men has increased more than for women. At the top of the income heap, she said, "the Donald Trumps of the world don't need a high-income wife. But the guy who wants to live in New York City or California, etc., who wants to do well, needs a wife with a six-figure income if he's going to have a nice life there."
In middle America, many women who are doing better than the men in their demographic don't view those men as marriage material, she said. Throw in unemployment, underemployment and general economic instability, and the result is a roller coaster.
"Studies show the greater the inequality in a society, the higher rates of violence, incarceration, teen birth rates, mental illness and other things. All of these things come with greater inequality, aggravated by unemployment or underemployment that feed back into families and stability," Carbone said. "It magnifies inequality and creates these repeated cycles of bad outcomes for kids."
The problem of unstable families can't be solved with welfare, she said, but what can help is the creation of stable jobs, training and not forcing the employee to bear all the risk of a bad economy.
While Lerman agrees the economy impacts marriage, he said the decline in marriage "has occurred in good times and in bad over the last number of years, so it's hard to say that just fixing the economy will solve it. I don't say it's useless, but it's far from a sufficient solution."
State of Our Unions 2012 also contains a proposal for a marriage and relationship education strategy by Theodora Ooms of the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center and Alan J. Hawkins from Brigham Young University.
Familyscholars.org is hosting an interactive symposium highlighting the analysis and a critique by 14 scholars from all over the country who wrote reviews of the report. It will be online Thursday, Dec. 20, and continue through Friday at www.familyscholars.org.
The group welcomes "rigorous, critical engagement in a context of civility," FamilyScholars.org's Rev. Amy Ziettlow said.
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