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'The President's Marriage Agenda': How to reduce suffering for children and strengthen families

Published: Sunday, Dec. 16 2012 12:05 a.m. MST

"Middle America" is abandoning marriage, with ramifications for children, stability and the future.

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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.

The fix

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."

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