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Bound together: marriage rates and the American dream
Wedding
The American "retreat from marriage" may portend harm for the American dream, says National Marriage Project director Brad Wilcox, who outlines policies that hamper rather than help children's future stability. - photo by istockphoto.com

The American “retreat from marriage” may portend harm for the American Dream, says National Marriage Project director W. Bradford Wilcox, who outlines policies that hamper rather than help children’s future stability in a commentary for the Heritage Foundation.

Marriage is no longer a “cornerstone for adulthood,” he writes. The marriage rate has fallen by nearly half since the 1960s, and from then to 1980 divorce nearly doubled, although it has since decreased from that high rate.

“Consequently, stable marriage is less likely to ground and guide the experience of adults -- and especially children -- in America,” writes Wilcox, who is also a senior fellow with the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Indeed, the nation’s retreat from marriage means that only about half of the nation’s adults are currently married, and that about half of the nation’s children will spend some time outside an intact, married home.”

It’s a trend that “disadvantages” children, especially those in lower-income homes, as they grow up, he noted, adding that not everyone agrees with his view. He points to assessments like New York University journalism professor Katie Roiphe’s that American families are “changing, not in decline.”

Roiphe wrote in the New York Times: “It’s useful and humbling to remember that no family structure guarantees happiness or ensures misery: real life is wilier and more fraught with accident and luck than that. If you think that being married ensures a good life for your children, you need only enter a bookstore and open any novel, or go to the theater and watch practically any play, or have dinner with nearly anyone you know. Suffering is everywhere, and married parents, even happily married parents, raise screwed-up or alcoholic or lost children, just as single parents raise strong, healthy ones. What matters most, it should go without saying, is the kind of parent you are, not whom you sleep with, and even that matters only up to a point.”

American sociologists are divided on many issues, but across political divides they do agree that economics is a key factor to creating well-being for children. Children in families without financial resources suffer on multiple fronts. For example, a lack of jobs that provide decent wages due to lack of skills or education help determine if couples marry and if children grow up in poverty.

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round, said that creating a better job market for young adults, especially young men, would help stabilize families.

Children also increasingly grow up with multiple, sequential parental figures, either step-parents or a parent’s new partner. Last year, Paula Fomby, associate research scientist at the University of Michigan, said that a parental figure who is not biologically related is not as likely to invest time or material resources in a child.

The interplay of economics and family structure is not a new discussion.

In 2005, Paul R. Amato, now a sociologist and professor at Penn State University, assessed how changes in family structure affect children’s lives. In the journal Future of Children, he said that any “marriage promotion interventions” that made it more likely kids would grow up with both parents might not make a huge difference to kids overall in America.

Still, he wrote, “interventions that lower only modestly the overall share of U.S. children experiencing various problems could nevertheless lower substantially the number of children experiencing them. Even a small decline in percentages, when multiplied by the many children in the population, is a substantial social benefit.”

This is Wilcox’s take: “If policymakers and Americans generally are concerned about boosting the welfare of children, bridging this nation’s social and economic divides and renewing the American Dream, they should think long and hard about public policies that would increase the odds that ordinary Americans recognize marriage as a key to their -- and their country’s -- future.”

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