THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MARRIAGE

July 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

In its issue of June 25, 2011, The Economist offers some arresting insights into the state of marriage in our nation that bear reflection by lawyers and judges who deal with family issues.  Some of the article’s points:    

  • Married couples, for the first time, now make up less than half (45%) of all households.
  • In every state the numbers of unmarried couples, childless households and single-person households are growing faster than those comprised of married people with children, according to the 2010 census. Married couples with children comprised 43% of households in 1950; they now account for just 20%.
  • Traditional marriage has evolved over the past 50 years from a near-universal rite to a luxury for the educated and affluent. In 1960, only four percentage points separated the wedded ways of college and high-school graduates (76% versus 72%). The gap has since widened to 16 percentage points, according to the Pew Research Center. A Census Bureau analysis released this spring found that brides are significantly more likely to have a college degree than they were in the mid-1990s.
  • The divorce rate has been declining as the marriage rate has been declining.  The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville has studied the phenomena and concluded that both declines are due to the fact that marriages are becoming more and more selective. The project also found that divorce rates for couples with college degrees are only a third as high as for those with a high-school education.
  • Americans with a high-school diploma or less (who account for 58% of the population) tell researchers they would like to marry, but do not believe they can afford it. Instead, they raise children out of wedlock.
  • Only 6% of children born to college-educated mothers were born outside marriage, according to the National Marriage Project. That compares with 44% of babies born to mothers whose education ended with high school. “Less marriage means less income and more poverty,” reckons Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She and other researchers have linked as much as half of the income inequality in America to changes in family composition: single-parent families (mostly those with a high-school degree or less) are getting poorer while married couples (with educations and dual incomes) are increasingly well-off. “This is a striking gap that is not well understood by the public,” she says.

There are implications here that reach far beyond mere economic considerations. Are we witnessing the degeneration of the American Middle Class, with its credal optimism grounded in family, economic opportunity, improvement, education and hard work? The American mantra at least since the 1930’s has been that the next generation will be better off than this one, and so on and on to infinity; the data suggests that principle is dead or dying.

Single parents have less income at their disposal than do married couples living together. Single mothers often live at or near poverty level. Children raised in poverty or near poverty have fewer opportunities to better themselves, and are more likely to pass their accustomed way of life on to their children.

The negative impact on children of being fatherless has been well documented. 

The sociology behind these developments is beyond the scope of this blog. It’s important, however, for us to be aware of the forces that affect the lives of those who pass through our courts.

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