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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) 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.

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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.

He said they also reinforce a pro-marriage set of norms — which includes things like the importance of having kids in marriage, being faithful, and being willing to sacrifice for your spouse and your children. People that are less integrated in these institutions are less likely to be good spouses and good parents, Wilcox said.

Americans who are college educated are more adverse to and more likely to oppose divorce now than those in the '70s, Wilcox found. He also found that their kids are unlikely to become pregnant as teenagers. These people have communicated to themselves and to their kids that the best way to organize their life is to get an education, get a job, get married and have kids in that order, Wilcox said.

By contrast, Americans who are less educated have become more accepting of divorce, having premarital sex and of having children as teenagers — which leaves them more vulnerable to negative family outcomes.

Don Herrin, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Utah, said that experiences like college teach a person how to commit and stick with things when they get hard.

"You learn how to persist and you know that it takes time. Getting jobs, internships, staying with it — if you know what that is like, you are probably light years ahead of someone you knew who dropped out of high school as a junior. Most of those folks aren't going to learn in the same period of time."

Instead, Herrin notes that those people tend to jump into sexual relationships and then decide to live together.

"I'm inclined to think that the way you look at yourself and the world and how it works is probably different when you get more years of higher education than when you don't. It affects your dependability, reliability, responsibility, accountability in the work place — but that also effects how you think about another person, friends, long term relationships. You look at that differently because you look at yourself differently."

"We definitely know this about marriage. You have to figure out ways to stick with it, even when you are having rough days with a partner. You can't throw out your kids, if you have kids," Herrin said.

And ultimately, the worry about the decline of marriage boils down to the children.

"Clearly, for me, I would say after that all the stuff that we try to learn and study — it definitely tells us that kids need examples in parents. They need to see examples of loving relationships between parents.

From the point of view of kids who grow up and become adults and become the parents for the next generation or chose not to have kids, there are real strong connections between what they experienced when they were growing up, and a lot of people avoid marriage from what they experienced growing up. Each generation is affecting the other generation. The kinds of things we model have really significant consequences whether we see them or not," Herrin said.

Wilcox said that communicating how much marriage benefits their own welfare, and especially the welfare of their children, to the less educated Americans is important.

"If they really care about their children they need to be working hard in their marriages or working hard to get married before they have kids because marriage is a much more stable context for kids and really connects them to their dads," Wilcox said.

Children raised in unstable cohabiting relationships are more likely to suffer in school, become depressed or delinquent and be physically, sexually and emotionally abused. The value that marriage plays in the lives of children is immeasurable, Wilcox says.

"I would say that marriage exists as a social institution primarily for the sake of children — but the reason that the state, public and society are concerned about marriage is because it's designed to provide the stable context for bearing and rearing of children. Communicating the value of marriage will help everyone regardless of their intention to have kids or not," Wilcox said.

e-mail: hloftus@desnews.com

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