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The clear conclusion from Census Bureau data is that the country needs the best elements of both the conservative and liberal perspectives in order for society to reap the full benefits of marriage.

Marriage rates continue a multigenerational decline — especially among millennials. To reverse the trend, lawmakers must reject either-or policy proposals to create a welcoming environment that helps everyone build on a foundation of strong families.

The evidence is overwhelmingly clear: Marriage and healthy families are good for society. The contentious political divide, however, seems to center on how best to promote it.

David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, recently addressed the hostile political landscape of differing approaches to implementing positive social change. According to Brooks, conservatives “have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed.” This space includes, among other things, institutions like the family, religion, communities and local culture. These institutions create pro-social norms and expectations that take root in young hearts and minds often without overt, conscious effort. As Brooks continued, one of the greatest perceived threats to these norms is that “social democrats and liberals tried to use the state to perform many functions previously done by the family, local civic organizations and the other players in the sacred space.”

Brooks’ perspective sets up a deep conflict between those who insist that traditional institutional norms on marriage must be defended against government influence and policy initiatives and those who insist that only changes in government policies can overcome the structural obstacles causing depressed marriage rates.

Which side is right, and what can be done to reverse the declining marriage rates?

Against the backdrop of this difficult conundrum, the Census Bureau provides new data that look specifically at marriage rates among the age cohort that includes millennials, exploring possible drivers of the marriage rate and providing some hope for the future. The clear conclusion from the data is that the country needs the best elements of both the conservative and liberal perspectives so society can reap the full benefits of marriage.

The census research acknowledges the importance of social norms and the effect that changing norms have on the marriage rate: “Although it was common up until the mid-20th century to live with parents prior to marriage, current cultural notions view it as important to establish an independent residence prior to marriage now.”

Marriage rates will suffer when changing institutional norms reinforce the expectation that marriage should be preceded by an increasingly high level of financial security, an idea no doubt perpetuated by lagging wages amid high levels of growth.

The study notes that “millennials are the first generation in the modern era to have more debt, poverty, and unemployment, as well as lower personal wealth and income, than the two preceding generations at similar life stages.” This is despite being more educated than preceding generations.

Equally clear — and well-documented in the data — is the reality that marriage rates are negatively impacted when economic, health care, education and employment opportunities are heavily weighed against the prospects of a fulfilling life together.

51 comments on this story

When it comes to reaping the benefits of strong families and promoting solutions to increase marriage rates, the real heroes will be the policymakers who resist the false choice of either-or policies and draw on the best wisdom of both conservative and liberal ideas. Social norms will inevitably evolve, but that evolution should not devalue the desirable pro-social benefits of marriage. Meanwhile, government policies must create an environment where newly married couples have a credible prospect of achieving self-reliance and financial security. Either solution alone likely will leave society worse off.