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Media Spotlight Welcome On ‘Retreat from Marriage’

In a pleasant surprise, a startling new report on the “disappearance of marriage” is getting serious attention from liberal media outlets. It’s a good day for the American family when NPR, CNN and The New York Times all take note of a study warning that divorce, childbearing outside marriage and single parenthood have become the norm—imperiling not only the wellbeing of children but the American Dream itself.

The most dramatic finding of the report released Monday is that, since the 1970s, marriage has declined most sharply among “moderately educated” Americans. Study author W. Bradford Wilcox defines this group as those with a high school education and perhaps some college; they make up the biggest number of adults today.

We’re facing a widening “marriage gap,” Wilcox writes in “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America”: If you’re a college graduate, you’re more likely to marry, have children and remain happily married than is someone with a high school diploma who didn’t finish college.

Wilcox is director of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, which produced the study in conjunction with the Center for Marriage and Families at the New York-based Institute for American Values. It’s ringing bells in interesting places.

NPR’s Jennifer Ludden writes:

The path to adulthood used to be clear — love, marriage, baby carriage — and no one embodied that more than America’s working class. But today, for those with only a high school education, that order no longer holds; in fact, a new study suggests that marriage is foundering in Middle America.

Ross Douthat, citing the Wilcox study, writes in The New York Times:

It’s no longer clear that middle America does hold more conservative views on marriage and family, or that educated Americans are still more likely to be secular and socially liberal. That division held a generation ago, but now it’s diminishing.

In the 1970s, for instance, college-educated Americans overwhelmingly supported liberal divorce laws, while the rest of the country was ambivalent. Likewise, college graduates were much less likely than high school graduates to say that premarital sex was ‘always wrong.’ Flash forward to the 2000s, though, and college graduates have grown more socially conservative on both fronts (50 percent now favor making divorces harder to get, up from 34 percent in the age of key parties), while the least educated Americans have become more permissive.

Also noticing the study, in addition to CNN and The Wall Street Journal, were writers for such left-wing outlets as Huffington Post and Slate.

So what’s all this got to do with prosperity? Americans who don’t get and stay married “are less likely to strive, to succeed and to save for the future,” Wilcox writes in Christianity Today with Chuck Donovan, senior research fellow in Heritage’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. Wilcox and Donovan call for Americans to restore marriage by devoting the sort of effort expended on reconstructing a devastated Europe after World War II:

In Congress and state legislatures alike, lawmakers who want to repair our economic house must not restrict themselves to the task of restoring material prosperity. … We cannot afford to be a nation where marriage is a luxury good, just another hallmark of a patrician lifestyle.

In fact, if we were serious about the state of marriage and what it is likely to take to rebuild it, we would think of something on the scale of a Marshall Plan for marriage. In this case, though, such a plan would work in reverse to lower social costs and ease government investment in the safety net.

Next Monday, Dec. 13, Donovan will play host when Wilcox visits Heritage to talk about the marriage study in a public event.

In Christianity Today, the two prescribe remedies such as tax breaks to alleviate marriage penalties in the current tax code; welfare programs that minimize incentives for cohabitation; improved job prospects for Americans with a high school education; and a cultural reset “to restore the desirability of marriage and parenthood for all Americans.”

The nation also needs to boost religious and civic institutions that “provide our genuine relationships and bring meaning and purpose to our lives,” Wilcox and Donovan write, and to “aggressively pursue” better programs that teach the benefits of marriage. “Robert Rector, an authority on poverty and welfare at The Heritage Foundation, points out that marriage education can meet students and young adults where they are—in schools and in low-income neighborhoods—and reduce future burdens on taxpayers.”

These and related ideas are part of Heritage’s “Solutions for America” policy agenda. Rescuing marriage may well take the moral equivalent of the postwar Marshall Plan. For starters, we certainly can make federal policy marriage-friendly within the constraints of limited government and a prudent budget, welcoming the assistance and proper role of local associations, churches and other institutions of civil society.

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