Middle America gives up on marriage?

Many readers sent in Ross Douthat’s column in this past Sunday’s New York Times. It was a fascinating piece that centered around this news:

This week, the National Marriage Project is releasing a study charting the decline of the two-parent family among what it calls the “moderately educated middle” — the 58 percent of Americans with high school diplomas and often some college education, but no four-year degree.

This decline is depressing, but it isn’t surprising. We’ve known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.

But the Marriage Project’s data suggest that this paradox is fading. It’s no longer clear that middle America does hold more conservative views on marriage and family, or that educated Americans are still more likely to be secular and socially liberal.

There’s much more in the column, and I was prepared to write a “Got News?” post about it. But some mainstream outlets did take an interest in the study and have begun writing up their versions, too. The Christian Science Monitor had an interesting piece and summarized some of the key findings this way:

* The chance that moderately educated Americans will have children outside of marriage has increased dramatically in the past few decades relative to other populations. In the early 1980s, just 2 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers (those with a college degree) were born outside of marriage, compared with 13 percent of those born to moderately educated mothers and 33 percent of those born to mothers who were high school dropouts. By the late 2000s, those numbers have shifted to 6 percent for highly educated mothers, 44 percent for moderately educated mothers, and 54 percent of babies born to the least educated.
* The cultural foundations of marriage – including religious attendance and faith in marriage as a way of life – now seem to be stronger among the highly educated than the moderately educated.
* At the same time that divorce rates have fallen for the least-educated and most highly educated Americans, they have risen slightly for the moderately educated.

This section was interesting:

[Dr. Andrew Cherlin} and Dr. [Bradford] Wilcox say that the trends are troubling not because of some puritanical value on marriage, but because of the clear links between strong marriage and happiness, economic prosperity, and children’s well-being.

“Their health, wealth, and happiness are all increased when women, and especially men, stay married,” says Wilcox, who notes that children are also much more likely to thrive when their parents stay married.

Moreover, Dr. Cherlin notes that about half of all nonmarriage cohabiting unions – including those with children – break up within five years. “You could argue that there’s nothing wrong with living together,” he says. “But if it makes the family lives of children more unstable, then that’s a concern.”

Oh I am so glad that these results have nothing to do with puritanical views on marriage. We all know that religious adherents only believe in marriage because they’re mindless drones who don’t even consider how it affects the various parties, am I right? It’s not like the Bible presents marriage as important for children’s well being, spousal happiness and economic security.

Still, the Monitor piece is very interesting and gets perspectives from various people. The report’s authors seem to think the breakdown in marriage is related to the economy. They quote another sociologist who think it might have to do with the sexual revolution and unrealistic expectations.

The Washington Times report focused on the faith gap revealed in the marriage report. College graduates are more likely to worship weekly than those with moderate education. It quoted the report’s author saying that if these trends continue, marriage and its socioeconomic successes, happiness and stability will be something enjoyed only by the highly educated.

There are so many more interesting angles to explore. What does this data mean for houses of worship? How are local congregations dealing with the institutional decline of marriage? How can congregations most help their communities as families struggle around them? What other stories are the mainstream media missing while they devote so many pages and stories to encouraging changes in marriage laws to include same-sex partners?

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  • Dave

    How are local congregations dealing with the institutional decline of marriage? How can congregations most help their communities as families struggle around them?

    I’d love some broadly applicable advice. In the UU congregation I attend we have a single late-teen who’s just given birth. Individuals are rallying around (eg, getting her off her butt to apply for WIC and other available stuff) but so far no institutional response.

  • Bob Smietana

    The Economist has a great story on this back in 2007.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    This prevaling view of marriage — that its disposable — is disasterous. so many of my male friends have seen this. 80 percent of divorces are initiated by women.

    Puritanical? Actually, it’s just sane to stay married….

    David, http://www.RedLetterBelievers.com
    “Salt and Light”

  • dalea

    This looks to be the key finding:

    The biggest driver, perhaps, is the loss of the high-quality blue-collar jobs which used to be available to those without a college degree, increasing the financial stress on those marriages and making many moderately educated Americans less likely to get married.

    Which makes me wonder if the older system was based on religion or bourgeois values.

  • Jerry

    The cultural foundations of marriage – including religious attendance and faith in marriage as a way of life – now seem to be stronger among the highly educated than the moderately educated.

    That, to me, is the religious nub of the story.

    I wonder what the cause is for this decline in religiousity. Specifically, is the investments by the wealthy in China, the outsourcing of American jobs to China and the rise of Chinese power causing those being pushed from the middle class into the lower classes to lose faith in all institutions, including religion? Does government giving tax breaks to the wealthy while cutting services for the poor and newly poor affect this disillusionment? I really would like to see a followup exploring this issue.

  • dalea

    In the early 1980s, just 2 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers (those with a college degree) were born outside of marriage, compared with 13 percent of those born to moderately educated mothers and 33 percent of those born to mothers who were high school dropouts. By the late 2000s, those numbers have shifted to 6 percent for highly educated mothers, 44 percent for moderately educated mothers, and 54 percent of babies born to the least educated.

    Once again we see reporters difficulty in handling numbers. An increase from 2 to 6 is a 300% increase. An increase from 13 to 44 is a 335% increase. An increase from 33 to 54 is a 56% increase. So, the rate for HE and ME births has increased at roughly the same rate indicating that both groups are moving at about the same pace in the same direction while the PE are getting a handle on the situation. The report confuses absolute numbers with rates of change.

    For clarity, the data should be presented by age cohort, region, urban/rural/suburban, ethnicity and probably some other ways. I suspect that the rates would differ between a teenage minority group and a HE group in their 30′s. This really is not very competant statistical analysis.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jerry,

    Likewise, I was wondering if the report says anything about which happened first — decline in religiosity or decline in marriage?

  • Sarah Webber

    Mollie,

    I think that’s a chicken and egg kind of question. Most of my friends are married and there is a significant social pressure to stay married, to fix something in your relationship if it’s broken, to keep going together even when life is hard. But these are all certainly supported by the churches we attend. I think without the combined social and religious pressure to keep my marriage healthy, I might let it slide (because, like many valuable things, it takes work and I’m human and prone to laziness).

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    One hole which I cannot blame the report for not addressing is class differences in the sorts of churches people belong to. The stereotype of course is that pentecostal and extremely literalistic religion is lower class, while those excessively theological and liberal Episcopalians are an upper class phenomenon. Considering all the battles over sexuality it is apropos that they imply by omission that it doesn’t matter much how one believes.

  • Julia

    80 percent of divorces are initiated by women.

    When I was still doing divorces, I found this to be true and it seemed there is some kind of gentlemanly thing to have the wife file. This happened more often than not even if the guy was openly leaving the wife for another woman he intended to marry. A guy would wait around and wait around and want her to do the filing.

    I’d love to see a story on why this is the case. After all, lots of these guys were no longer feeling gentlemanly toward their spouses – considering the battle over property and custody that often followed the filing. Maybe the issue is how it looks to others?

  • Julia

    I think without the combined social and religious pressure to keep my marriage healthy, I might let it slide (because, like many valuable things, it takes work and I’m human and prone to laziness).

    Amen. The demise of social pressure to work it out has got to have a big impact. Making vows in front of friends and family presumes that others have an interest in how the marriage will turn out. Many today think it’s nobody’s business but the spouses. Or this is the reason why many don’t want to get married.

  • Cynthia

    I think that this article from Time is false. If anything I think that in the future those in Middle America and in the suburbs whom would marry will marry for God and only have a ceremony since they don’t have the money to pay for marriage. With the demise of evangelicalism coming and superficial Christianity dissapearing there will be a vital more private form of Christianity arising. The type whom would marry may eschew casual sex, ‘open relationships’, divorce, out of wedlock births and so forth but since they don’t have the money and conditions to take up marriage only religious, ceremonial vows will be taken. Also good point at the end. If Time magazine thinks that marriage is so disposable then why the efforts on ”gay marriage”? Conservatives were right. ”Gay marriage” highlights the end of marriage. It’s not about honouring marriage, it’s about hating those people whom still honour marriage for God.

  • Cynthia

    Here’s something http://www.thinkinghousewife.com/wp/2010/12/the-marriage-gap-2/

    Both upper and lower classes are experiencing family breakdown. Another reason I don’t trust the Time article is that liberals tend to accuse of conservatives of ‘hypocrisy!’ and a projection that themselves do. Just because people cannot pay for marriage doesn’t mean they are abandoning it completely. Ceremonial marriage will arise in some sectors (many will not but some will).

  • Julia

    only religious, ceremonial vows will be taken

    Unless the laws have changed when I wasn’t looking, churches whose ministers/priests are approved by the govt to conduct weddings are not allowed to have ceremonies not reported to the government.

    Are there churches whose ministers aren’t approved?

    I think it will be fake ministers & priests like in Japan.
    Real ones would be in trouble for not requiring the license and not turning in the paperwork afterward.

    “Being a fake priest is big business in Japan – I’ve done a TV commercial for one company,” he added. “In Sapporo, there are five agencies employing about 20 fake priests. In a city like Tokyo, there must be hundreds.”

    The fake Western priests are employed at Western-style weddings to give a performance and add to the atmosphere. These are not legal ceremonies – the couples also have to make a trip to the local registrar.

    Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6067002.stm

    Example – after a view of the traditional Japanese wedding.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSV4Q1a3ZTo