Commentary Magazine


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Marriage and Middle America

A study on “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America” was recently published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

The report is both somewhat encouraging and quite alarming. First, let’s look at the encouraging side of things: among the affluent and highly educated (defined as those having at least a bachelor’s degree and who comprise about 30 percent of the adult population), marriage is stable and appears to be getting stronger. They now enjoy marriages that are as stable and happy as those four decades ago. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the project, cites four reasons for this: First, they have access to better-paying and more stable work than their less-educated peers (stable employment and financial success help strengthen marriage and relieve pressure on families).

Second, highly educated Americans are more likely to hold the “bourgeois virtues” — self-control, a high regard for education, and a long-term orientation — that are crucial to maintaining a marriage in today’s cultural climate.

Third, highly educated Americans are now more likely to attend church or to be engaged in a meaningful civic organization than their less educated peers. According to Wilcox, “This type of civic engagement is important because being connected to communities of memory and mutual aid increases men and women’s odds of getting and staying married.”

Finally, highly educated Americans are increasingly prone to adopt a marriage mindset — marked, for instance, by an aversion to divorce and nonmarital pregnancy, and a willingness to stick it out in a marriage — that generally serves them well through the ups and downs of married life. They recognize that they and their children are more likely to thrive — and to succeed in life — if they get and stay married. “So, we are witnessing a striking reversal in American life where highly educated Americans are more likely to be connected to the religious and moral sources of a strong marriage culture than their fellow citizens from middle America,” Wilcox says.

Now for the bad news: among the poor, who because they have so little are most in need of stable institutions, marriage continues to be fragile and weak. For many of them, marriage is virtually nonexistent, a concept almost without meaning. This isn’t a new development; it is simply an accelerated one.

And now for the really bad news: “In Middle America,” the reports states, “marriage is in trouble … the newest and perhaps most consequential marriage trend of our time concerns the broad center of our society, where mar­riage, that iconic middle-class institution, is foundering.” (Middle Americans are defined as those with a high school but not a four-year college degree. This “moderately educated” middle of America constitutes a full 58 percent of the adult population.)

Among this cohort, rates of nonmarital childbearing and divorce are rising, and marital happiness is falling. If this retreat from marriage among moderately educated citizens continues, the report argues, “then it is likely that we will witness the emergence of a new society” — one in which “for a substantial share of the United States, economic mobility will be out of reach, their children’s life chances will diminish, and large numbers of young men will live apart from the civilizing power of married life.”

“When Marriage Disappears” cites three cultural developments that have played a particularly noteworthy role in eroding the standing of marriage in Middle America.

First, the attitudes of the moderately educated have traditionally been more socially conservative on a cluster of marriage-related matters, but they now appear to be turning more socially permis­sive, even as highly educated Americans have become more likely to embrace a marriage-minded mindset.

The second cultural development that has helped to erode Middle-American marriage is that these Americans are more likely to be caught up in behaviors—from multiple sexual partners to marital infidelity—that endanger their prospects for marital suc­cess.

The third cultural development that has played a role in eroding the standing of marriage is that moderately educated Americans are markedly less likely than are highly educated Americans to embrace the bourgeois values and virtues—for instance, delayed gratification, a focus on education, and temperance—that are the sine qua nons of personal and marital success in the contemporary United States.

What we are seeing, then, is a growing “marriage gap” among moderately and highly educated Americans, which is leading to the stratification of our society. “The United States is increasingly a separate and unequal nation when it comes to the institution of marriage,” according to the report.

This is worrisome. American democracy has always depended on a relatively strong, stable middle class. If, because of the fracturing of the family, the middle class begins to enervate, it is bound to have negative, far-reaching ramifications. In addition, when marriages fail, children are the ones who absorb the most severe damage. Broken marriages and unwed pregnancies are also largely responsible for what in 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan called a “tangle of pathology.” And because the moderately educated middle in America don’t have the advantages more affluent, highly educated Americans do, the American Dream is slipping beyond their reach.

Here it’s worth recognizing the prescience of the social scientist Charles Murray, who in a 1995 essay in the Public Interest predicted a restoration of traditional society among what he called “the overclass” and wrote “there is reason to be optimistic about marriage and children for the overclass.” But Murray went on to warn about how the whole country must eventually participate in the restoration because “the horrific alternative to bringing the whole country along is a new kind of class society in America, divisive and ultimately destructive of American democracy.”

Whether and how we avoid this fate is not entirely clear. Certainly there are some grounds for optimism based on recent history. Over the past 15 years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker — but almost every other social indicator (crime, drug use, welfare, rates of abortion, education, and others) has improved. This is an impressive achievement — but not one we can rely on ad infinitum. The family remains, in the words of Michael Novak, the original department of health, education, and welfare. For a growing number of middle-class Americans, it is a disappearing institution. And nothing good can come of that. Nothing at all.