Commentary Magazine


Topic: family

“Something That Was Not Imaginable 40 years Ago Has Happened”

Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, has written a sobering and important essay for National Affairs on marriage, parenthood, and public policy. I thought it might be useful to highlight data from the Haskins essay, in order to understand just how profound the changes in family composition have been over the last four decades. 

Marriage Rates

In 1970, 83 percent of women ages 30 to 34 were married. By 2010, that number had fallen to 57 percent.

For almost every demographic group, whether broken down by age, education, or race and ethnicity, marriage rates have declined nearly continuously since 1970. Marriage rates for 20- to 24-year-olds, for instance, fell from 61 percent to 16 percent, a decline of almost 75 percent in four decades. The rate for 35- to 39-year-olds declined by 25 percent, from 83 percent to 62 percent. (The only exception to the pattern of decline was for women with a college degree or more. After a modest decline of about 11 percent between 1970 and 1990, the marriage rate for college-educated women stopped declining and even increased by about 1 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

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Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, has written a sobering and important essay for National Affairs on marriage, parenthood, and public policy. I thought it might be useful to highlight data from the Haskins essay, in order to understand just how profound the changes in family composition have been over the last four decades. 

Marriage Rates

In 1970, 83 percent of women ages 30 to 34 were married. By 2010, that number had fallen to 57 percent.

For almost every demographic group, whether broken down by age, education, or race and ethnicity, marriage rates have declined nearly continuously since 1970. Marriage rates for 20- to 24-year-olds, for instance, fell from 61 percent to 16 percent, a decline of almost 75 percent in four decades. The rate for 35- to 39-year-olds declined by 25 percent, from 83 percent to 62 percent. (The only exception to the pattern of decline was for women with a college degree or more. After a modest decline of about 11 percent between 1970 and 1990, the marriage rate for college-educated women stopped declining and even increased by about 1 percent between 1990 and 2010.)

Non-Marital Birth Rates

The non-marital birth rate among all demographic groups has increased from 11 percent to almost 41 percent over the same four decades. In 2010, 72 percent of births to African-American women were out of wedlock. The Hispanic rate was 53 percent, a 50 percent increase over 1989 (when data on Hispanic birth rates first began to be collected separately from non-Hispanic whites). The rate for non-Hispanic whites, which stood at 16 percent in 1989, had increased to 29 percent by 2010, a larger increase in percentage terms than for any other group over that period.

Teen pregnancy rates have declined almost every year since 1991, and the number of teen births has declined by more than 50 percent since that time. The problem of non-marital pregnancy is now greatest among adults in their 20s and 30s.

Married-with-Children Households

Over the four-decade period, the percentage of married-with-children households declined by well over a third to just 51 percent. By contrast, the percentages of all three other types of households increased: married without children by 72 percent, single with children by 122 percent, and single without children by 165 percent.

Single Parent Households

In 1970, 12 percent of children lived with a single parent at any given time; over the next 40 years, that number increased by 124 percent, rising to 27 percent of children in 2010. Over the course of their childhoods, as many as half of all American children will spend some time in a single-parent household.

Child Poverty

According to the Census Bureau, in 2012 the poverty rate among children living with only their mother was 47.2 percent; by contrast, the poverty rate among children living with their married parents was 11.1 percent, meaning that a child living with a single mother was almost five times as likely to be poor as a child living with married parents.

As the Haskins essay makes clear, there is a high human cost to children in particular when marriage collapses–in terms of high school dropout rates, delinquency, crime and incarceration, drug use, mental illness, suicide, poverty, idleness in later years, and more. “If we want to address the challenges of income inequality and immobility,” he writes, “we must address one of the main causes – non-marital births and single parenting.”

Mr. Haskins, in reviewing programs tried at all levels of government, finds that the results have been mixed and, for the most part, hardly encouraging. We are dealing in a realm of human behavior where the positive effects of public policy look to be quite limited. What will be required is a substantial shift in social mores–in how we view the institution and purposes of marriage, the duties of parenthood, our commitments to one another, and even human fulfillment itself–and there’s little evidence that is about to occur anytime soon. 

In 2000, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. Moynihan responded, “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This change has occurred in “an historical instant,” Moynihan said. “Something that was not imaginable 40 years ago has happened.”

Indeed it has. (The trends that concerned Moynihan have, in fact, accelerated.) The historian Lawrence Stone said the scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent. It is unique. And as a civilization we seem unable, or at least unwilling, to do much of anything about it.

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America’s Exodus from Marriage

In 2000, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. Moynihan, a man of unusual sagacity, experience, and perspective, responded this way: “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This change has occurred in “an historical instant,” Moynihan said. “Something that was not imaginable 40 years ago has happened.”

I thought about Senator Moynihan’s observation after reading “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” which is the centerpiece of the latest State of Our Unions report. This study focused on the nearly 60 percent of Americans who have completed high school but do not have a four-year college degree. 

What we’re seeing is a rapid hollowing out of marriage in Middle America–with 44 percent of the children of moderately-educated mothers born outside of marriage. “We’re at a tipping point with Middle America,” W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading scholar on marriage, told National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, “insofar as Middle Americans are on the verge of losing their connection to marriage.”

We are “witnessing a striking exodus from marriage,” according to the study.

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In 2000, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. Moynihan, a man of unusual sagacity, experience, and perspective, responded this way: “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.” This change has occurred in “an historical instant,” Moynihan said. “Something that was not imaginable 40 years ago has happened.”

I thought about Senator Moynihan’s observation after reading “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” which is the centerpiece of the latest State of Our Unions report. This study focused on the nearly 60 percent of Americans who have completed high school but do not have a four-year college degree. 

What we’re seeing is a rapid hollowing out of marriage in Middle America–with 44 percent of the children of moderately-educated mothers born outside of marriage. “We’re at a tipping point with Middle America,” W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading scholar on marriage, told National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, “insofar as Middle Americans are on the verge of losing their connection to marriage.”

We are “witnessing a striking exodus from marriage,” according to the study.

More than 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock, while more than half of births (53 percent) among all women under 30 now occur outside of marriage. Between 1970 and 2012, the annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried adults decreased by more than 50 percent. The divorce rate today is about twice that of 1960, though it’s declined since hitting its highest point in our history in the early 1980s. For the average couple marrying for the first time in recent years, the lifetime probability of divorce or separation now falls between 40 and 50 percent. Today more than a quarter of all children live in single-parent families, compared to only 9 percent in 1960. And the number of unmarried couples has increased seventeen-fold in the last 50 years.

All of this has profoundly negative implications–for the emotional and mental well-being of children; for America’s social fabric and “civil society”; for social mobility and the gap in income inequality; and for dependency on government and costs to the state (family breakdown costs the taxpayers billions every year). The collapse of marriage in America, then, has enormous human and social ramifications. And whatever one thinks about same-sex marriage, this collapse has occurred long before any state approved marriage between gays.

The report offers a range of recommendations to reverse this trend, including eliminating marriage penalties and disincentives for the poor and for unwed mothers, tripling the child tax credit, providing marriage education and evaluating marriage programs, engaging Hollywood to help shape positive attitudes toward marriage and parenting, launching social media campaigns, and presidential leadership on this issue.

These recommendations may be fruitful, and the scholars who authored the marriage agenda have an admirable unwillingness to accept the collapse of marriage and the American family as irreversible. We are not, after all, by-standers in what is unfolding. We are the central actors.

Still, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the difficulty of the challenge we face. “The scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent and seems unique,” the distinguished historian Lawrence Stone said a few years ago. “At no time in history, with the possible exception of Imperial Rome, has the institution of marriage been more problematic than it is today.”

This is a deeply worrisome turn of events. And unless we find a way to repair the damage and the institution–unless we reshape our public and private attitudes toward marriage, family and children; toward commitment, self-giving, and love itself–there will be much human wreckage.

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