In the largely polarized debate over marriage, family, and children, two family scholars are attempting to find common ground. W. Bradford Wilcox is the Director of the National Marriage Project and often emphasizes the primacy of promoting and supporting marriage. Opposite him is Andrew J. Cherlin, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, who recently argued in his book The Marriage-Go-Round that stable arrangements for the care of children is most important, regardless of whether that is achieved through marriage or not. Despite their differences in perspective, Wilcox and Cherlin have come together to co-author a recent policy brief entitled, “The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America”. The paper addresses the growing problem of the marginalization of marriage and instability of family life among “middle America” – those moderately-educated Americans who hold degrees from high schools but not from four-year colleges, and who make up a significant 51 percent of the young adult population (those aged twenty-five to thirty-four).
In their paper, Wilcox and Cherlin profess agreement on some important points. First, they both acknowledge that “children are more likely to thrive when they reside in stable, two-parent homes.” Furthermore, they agree that cohabitation is often only a short-term arrangement, making it less preferable to marriage, which “remains the setting in which adults seek to maintain long-term bonds”. They conclude the brief by presenting six policy proposals aimed at strengthening marriage and family life among “Middle America”.
Their paper responds to a pressing problem in American society today. An increasing number of young Americans who have completed high school but not college are having children in fragile cohabiting relationships instead of within marriage. Even those who are married face a high divorce rate, being more than twice as likely to divorce in the first ten years of marriage as their college-educated peers. As Wilcox and Cherlin state in their paper, “The nation’s retreat from marriage, which started in low-income communities in the 1960s and 1970s, has now moved into Middle America”. In fact, when it comes to out-of-wedlock births, the rate of nonmarital births among moderately educated mothers (44 percent) is closer to that of women who didn’t graduate high school (54 percent) than to their college-educated counterparts (6 percent).
Wilcox and Cherlin believe this deepening divide is due in large part to the increasing number of moderately-educated women who are cohabiting when they give birth. In the United States, cohabiting arrangements remain a highly unstable environment for children, with an astounding 65 percent of them experiencing the separation of their parents by age 12, compared to only 24 percent of those children born to married parents. Furthermore, Wilcox and Cherlin argue that recent economic hardship and contemporary cultural norms have played a large role in the increased rate of cohabitation. With many couples waiting for “financial stability” before getting married, cohabitation has become a welcomed alternative, especially now that premarital sex is no longer taboo but is instead perceived as the norm. But while young people are willing to put off marriage until they achieve financial stability, many aren’t so willing to wait to have children. In fact, Wilcox and Cherlin write that according to sociologists Kathryn Edin of Harvard University and Maria Kefalas of Saint Joseph’s University “low-income women who are unsure of whether they can ever find good marriage partners will often go ahead and have children rather than risk never having them”.
But there is a great irony here. Many young couples are putting off marriage until they achieve economic stability, but they are not waiting to have and raise children. And yet, marriage would be one of the best decisions these couples could make both for themselves and for their children. “To be sure, not every married family is a healthy one that benefits children,” the brief states. “Yet, on average, the institution of marriage conveys important benefits to adults and children.” Among these benefits are a greater likelihood for married women and men to “accrue substantial financial assets” and enjoy physical and mental health. Furthermore, children of intact families with married parents are more likely to have better relationships with their parents, graduate from high school and college, stay out of trouble, and enjoy employment and marriage as adults. Moreover, marriage actually contributes to the economic security (and overall well-being) of couples and children, and of society at large.
Unfortunately, many young people today are not learning about these benefits. Fittingly, Wilcox and Cherlin propose as one of their policy ideas the generation of a “social marketing campaign” that would encourage young men and women to follow a particular trajectory toward achieving success, which would include “finishing high school, getting a job, getting married, and then having children”. Their idea is shared by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, co-directors of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, who have also suggested such a campaign.
What significance does all of this have for members and supporters of our Network, the majority of whom are not policy makers and either have received or are pursuing a college degree? Wilcox and Cherlin diagnose current cultural norms as one of the foremost factors contributing to the retreat from marriage among moderately-educated Americans. But these cultural norms did not start with Middle America. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was initiated and propagated by the educated elite of society. And so it continues to be today. Policy makers must do their part to help encourage marriage and family life among those stuck in a cycle of broken marriages and fragile homes. But we, also, must do our part to help shift the culture and establish sexual norms that lead young people to stable and healthy marriages and families. To this end, we cannot relinquish our effort to educate young men and women (both those in college and those who are not) in the truth about marriage and sexual integrity. A worthy goal as we head into this next academic year.