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Marriage retreat may have hit bottom, with comeback on the way

Published: Friday, Oct. 4 2013 5:55 p.m. MDT

Demographic and cultural signs indicate that the marriage rate, down 50 percent since the 1970s, may be ready to climb again, just as nonmarital childbearing may be dropping, as well.

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The American family may be heading back to a more traditional path, if the flattening of two recent demographic lines holds over time.

Demographic and cultural signs say that the marriage rate, down 50 percent since the 1970s, may be ready to climb again, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. Meanwhile, nonmarital childbearing has been stable for five years after decades of steep increase.

Wilcox analyzed the trend for the Family Studies blog, presented by the Institute for Family Studies.

Among signs that the "retreat from marriage" may be as low as it's going to get right now, Wilcox points to the fact that "since 2009, the marriage rate looks to have stabilized at about 6.8 per 1,000 Americans. And, because the population is growing, the number of Americans actually tying the knot has been rising since 2009, from 2.08 million marriages that year to 2.12 million marriages in 2011, with more marriages forecast for this year."

The "why" of it all is a bit trickier, said Wilcox, who indicated it might be a mix of a bad economy that makes single parenthood more "daunting" to women who don't have a good economic footing and the fact that marriage is viewed as valuable culturally, even among those who have moved away from it over the past 40 years.

Research has noted the problems that may be created for children who are born to unmarried parents. A study by Child Trends in late 2011 said that "there are several reasons to be concerned about the high level of nonmarital childbearing. Couples who have children outside of marriage are younger, less healthy and less educated than are married couples who have children. Children born outside of marriage tend to grow up with limited financial resources, to have less stability in their lives because their parents are more likely to split up and form new unions, and to have cognitive and behavioral problems such as aggression and depression."

Even when children live with their biological parents, which is often the case in cohabiting couples, the children of not-married parents "are more likely to be poor and to face multiple risks to their health and development," the report said.

Andrew J. Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today," told the Deseret News that parents who cohabit are more likely to split up than are married parents, creating potentially difficult transitions for their children.

The 2012 State of Our Unions annual report, issued by the National Marriage Project, said that "today, the average woman bearing a child outside of marriage is a 20-something white woman with a high school degree. Like their fellow young adults, she and her child’s father are beset by economic stress and institutional change on many fronts."

The report said jobs have disappeared, health care is "uncertain, and the cost of housing and higher education have shot up." Add in broken unions and it "means that today's children of Middle America are growing up without stable families to help them weather economic change, deregulation and globalization.

"The loss of social opportunity for these children and their families and the national cost to taxpayers when stable families fail to form — about $112 billion annually, or more than $1 billion per decade, by one cautious estimate — are significant," the report said.

Sorting out marital and other family structure trends is complex and cuts across age groups. Earlier this month, a USA Today story noted that more divorced or widowed Americans are choosing not to remarry after being widowed or divorced, based on analysis of federal data that was provided to the newspaper. The story said that remarriage has dropped nearly 40 percent over 20 years, from 50 per 1,000 in 1990 to 29 per 1,000 in 2011.

Sociologist Susan Brown, lead author on the analysis by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, said that fewer people in virtually every age category were choosing to remarry.

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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