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Restoring marriage in U.S. will take some time

By Cynthia M. Allen Marriage is back. That's according to a recent New York Times piece that confidently declared, "marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time."

Marriage isn't all about princes and fairy-tale weddings.
Marriage isn't all about princes and fairy-tale weddings.Read moreAssociated Press

By Cynthia M. Allen

Marriage is back.

That's according to a recent New York Times piece that confidently declared, "marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time."

The bold assertion is based on the hardly novel fact that the divorce rate has dropped in recent decades after peaking in the early 1980s.

About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary, reported the Times, putting the "50 percent of marriages end in divorce" myth to bed once and for all.

If that were the whole picture, it would be time for celebration indeed.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that marriage as a bedrock societal institution is in recovery, considering that the marriage rate has been in a free fall for years.

In September, the Census Bureau reported that the nation's marriage rate - which now includes same-sex couples - is the lowest since 1920, when 65 percent of adults 18 and older were married. It peaked in 1960 at 72 percent. Today the rate is 50 percent.

That's in part because more adults are delaying marriage, choosing to cohabit, and even starting families before tying the knot.

Some social scientists argue that it's a net positive, because when adults do eventually marry, their unions are stronger, built on love and self-fulfillment, and they more readily eschew traditional gender roles that can frustrate relationships.

Yet the phenomenon of marriage stability is almost exclusively enjoyed by the wealthy, educated, and economically mobile.

A Pew analysis of census data found that high earners and college graduates marry at higher rates and tend to stay married, while poorer and less educated adults are more likely to stay single. Divorce rates among the less educated tend to mirror those of the peak divorce years.

And forgoing the altar doesn't mean people are also skipping childbearing. Instead, more women are choosing to have children outside of marriage.

Manhattan Institute scholar Kay Horowitz explains it this way: "People, almost always those with less education and less income for the required accoutrements of marriage, took the logic of the divorce revolution and ran with it. If marriage and childbearing were no longer tightly linked but rather discreet - even unrelated - life events ... then why marry at all?"

But if social scientists of liberal and conservative bents can agree on one thing, it's that the divorce of marriage and child-rearing has devastating long-term consequences, particularly for children.

Among single-parent households, child poverty rates are four times higher than they are in two-parent families. "Even some of our biggest social programs, like food stamps, do not reduce child poverty as much as unmarried parenthood has increased it," wrote Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution - reinforcing the notion that growing the already bloated welfare state to support single mothers is not a comprehensive solution.

Some liberals have argued that a model for successful marriages exists - the one practiced by upper-class progressives whose pursuit of sexual parity has resulted in more and longer-lasting marriages. If working-class men and women simply adopt such liberal practices and attitudes, they too can succeed in marriage and enjoy its requisite benefits.

The arrogance of such a suggestion aside, there's an interesting twist to the notion that progressive attitudes will save the marriage culture. As Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, "it underestimates the effective social conservatism of the upper-class model of family life."

College-educated adults actually have more conservative lifestyles than many are willing to let on. They are more likely to attend church, wait until marriage to cohabit, and have male primary breadwinners - none of which are particularly progressive ideals.

Other social observers, like W. Bradford Wilcox of the American Enterprise Institute and Robert I. Lerman of the Urban Institute, suggest a four-pronged approach that combines tax benefits for children with improved educational opportunities for adults (especially for young men) and a far-reaching civic campaign to push the "success sequence" - the idea that adults who get educated, get a job, get married, and then have children are more likely to be members of a robust middle class.

But whether or not the solution is as straightforward as either approach suggests, it's clear that restoring marriage in America still has a long way to go.