The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute of American Values recently released a study that, among other things, indicates that a breakdown in values concerning marriage and childbearing among moderately educated Americans (those with a high school education but no college degree) is leading to a “separate and unequal” marriage status in America.
The study, When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America, asserts that not too long ago middle Americans were likely to get married, value marriage, and to belong to churches and civic organizations that gave direction and stability to their marriages. But in the last thirty years, this has changed. Bad marriages, divorce, children born out of wedlock, and family instability have been rising at an alarming rate among middle Americans. Take a look at the unwed mother epidemic by itself. The percentage of unmarried middle American women having children has risen from 13% in 1982 to 44% in 2006-2008. Today middle Americans are less likely to consider marriage, rarely attend church, and, with few exceptions, do not hold stable, good-paying jobs. It is evident that the foundations supporting marriage within this group are rapidly deteriorating.
The effects of this breakdown are many: Adults experience greater stress and depression. Acquisition of wealth decreases, while the mortality rate increases. As for children, there is a greater chance that they will have trouble in school, will abuse drugs, will have psychological difficulties, will experience teenage pregnancies, and will end up in jail. These dire consequences are even more pronounced among poor minorities with the percentage of children born out of wedlock now at 72%. Inexplicably, middle Americans are trying their best to catch up.
But a major surprise of this study is that one group of Americans, the highly educated and affluent, are not affected by this cultural breakdown. In fact, the quality and stability of marriage has actually improved in the last thirty years. For example, the divorce rate for college-educated couples in the first ten years of marriage has declined from 15% to 11%. The percentage of women having children out of wedlock is only 6%.
There are five main reasons why marriage is stronger in this group. First, they have greater access to stable, good-paying jobs. Second, the virtues of self-control, setting long-term goals, and valuing education are very deeply ingrained. Third, they are more inclined to attend church and to belong to civic-minded institutions that reinforce marriage values. Fourth, they tend to oppose divorce and non-marital pregnancy. And fifth, they are more willing to work through difficulties in order to stay married.
Children raised by such parents have an enormous advantage over children of middle Americans or poor minorities. They grow up in a safe, stable environment. They learn the values of discipline, hard work, and delayed gratification. Their parents are the role models for success and happiness. Consequently, they usually get a good education, earn a college degree, acquire good-paying jobs, and then marry and have children. If they maintain the values of their parents, their children will do the same, and the cycle will continue.
In the meantime, middle America and the poor continue to founder in poverty, crime, and dependency, while the price America pays for welfare, rehab, and incarceration continues to grow unabated. Those who find themselves in poverty as a result of cruel fate are worthy of compassion and assistance. But those who find themselves in poverty due to irresponsible behavior are simply an enormous drain on the rest of society and have no right to demand the resources of others. So, do I forfeit my Christian membership card if I say to them, “You’re on your own”? I think not.