Marriage matters for kids. —W. Bradford Wilcox

SALT LAKE CITY — Marriage among those with a college education is thriving, but among others it is losing ground.

Between social changes that include delays in the age at which men and women marry, more instability and economic and cultural shifts, marriage is an institution feeling some real pressure. That is particularly noteworthy because a broad body of research confirms children do best in intact families, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

"Marriage matters for kids," he said in a presentation on the "retreat from marriage in middle America." Wilcox shared the latest research on marriage during a breakfast briefing at Grand America Friday, hosted by the Utah-based GFC Foundation.

Lifelong marriage is still an aspiration that spans demographics. But it actually occurs in a most uneven fashion. For instance, Wilcox said those who graduate from college are increasingly tolerant of some shifts in social mores, but not of divorce. Moms with college degrees are more embarrassed by a daughter's teen pregnancy than are moms with less education.

Besides the finding that highly educated Americans are more "marriage-minded," Wilcox said they are also the segment of the population most likely to attend church regularly and are more stable overall. Both middle-class and low-income Americans are increasingly on the other side of what he called a "marriage gap."

Children in intact marriages have fewer problems overall, he said, than peers whose parents are divorced, never married or who live together without being married.

About one-third of American adults have college degrees and fall into the highly educated category. "Middle America" includes those who have completed high school and those who have some college education, about 58 percent of the population. The other 12 percent are high school drop-outs and they typically end up with low incomes.

The "retreat from marriage" is most concentrated among middle America, Wilcox said, while a half-century ago, there was not a class divide regarding marriage. Middle American men, especially, are less connected to the work, civil, social and religious institutions that contribute to sustaining long marriages.

The "why" depends on whom you ask. Wilcox said the liberal viewpoint is that the marriage divide results from economic challenges, while the conservative viewpoint says cultural and legal issues create it. Both are right, according to research. The culture is changing, the economic challenges contribute and so does what Wilcox calls a "retreat from civil society."

As for what happens to the kids, those in single-parent homes are two to three times more likely to struggle than those who live with their married biological parents. Boys are half as likely to be incarcerated at some point if their families remain intact. And girls are seven times as likely to be pregnant as teens if dad left before they were 6 years old than if he stayed.

Children don't do as well, either, in families where the parents cohabitate instead of marrying, Wilcox said. And because so many people now live together instead of marrying, "cohabitation is now a bigger risk to children in the United States than divorce is," he noted.

Children in cohabiting household are 116 percent more likely to smoke than if they live with their married biological parents and 60 percent less likely to graduate from high school.

Cohabitation, Wilcox said, is more risky to children because that type of family has "less" of several things that are very important to wellbeing: trust, stability, commitment and support, among others.

The most dangerous household situation for a child is a single-parent living with a partner who is not related to the child.

Asked about whether the benefits of a committed marital relationship would extend to same-sex couples, Wilcox said that it is too soon to say. "We don't know how it will affect kids." That's something that will take a decade or two to sort out, he added.

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