Clay County - News Flash

Liberty - News Flash

Experts Debate Strategies to Revive Declining Marriage Rates in America


 In a sociology-of-family class at the University of Missouri last spring, the majority, comprising about two-thirds of the students, anonymously indicated that they did not consider it morally wrong to have a baby outside of marriage. The class, with approximately 200 students, showcased diversity in terms of geography, race, and ethnicity. Despite their varied backgrounds, the students generally expressed a belief that society should not prioritize or favor any particular family structure.

However, when the same group of students, predominantly unmarried, was asked about their personal plans, 97 percent indicated an intention to pursue education, full-time work, marriage, and then children. Additionally, when queried about their parents' potential reaction to a pregnancy announcement, 99 percent believed their parents would react negatively.

These responses are not unexpected, given that around 80 percent of the students reported coming from intact families with married parents. This trend is consistent with data from elite colleges and universities nationwide, where the majority of students are born to parents who remain married. Despite their liberal or progressive stances on various social issues, the majority of students appear to value the stability of a traditional family structure.

However, there is a notable disjunction between the public family ethic espoused by these students and their private family orientations—a phenomenon commonly observed in elite circles. Extensive research underscores the benefits of being raised in a married, stable household for children's well-being and future success. The "success sequence," which involves obtaining a high-school degree, working full-time in one's twenties, and marrying before having children, significantly improves one's chances of upward mobility and reduces the risk of child poverty.

Despite the evidence supporting the importance of marriage and two-parent families, many elites, including professors, journalists, educators, and other cultural influencers, publicly downplay or disregard these values while privately valuing them. This dissonance between their public rhetoric and private actions perpetuates societal inequality, contributes to increased hardship, and arguably crosses into moral territory.

Rob Henderson, a recent doctoral graduate from Cambridge University, has sparked a national conversation on the correlation between family structure and success after reflecting on his experiences as an undergraduate at Yale in 2016. Henderson, who emerged from a childhood marked by family instability, was taken aback when the majority of his Yale peers raised their hands in response to a professor's inquiry about being raised by both birth parents. Despite coming from a working-class background with multiple foster placements, Henderson found himself in the minority among his elite classmates.

Prompted by this disparity, Henderson began to contemplate why certain individuals had access to opportunities while others faced incarceration, low-wage work, or substance abuse issues. He increasingly became convinced that family structure played a pivotal role in shaping life prospects. However, discussing this perspective at Yale proved challenging, with many students redirecting the conversation towards economic factors whenever family structure was broached.

Henderson's observations reflect a broader societal trend observed in elite circles, where individuals often advocate for progressive ideals publicly while adhering to traditional values privately. A survey conducted by the Institute for Family Studies revealed a similar pattern among educated Californians, who overwhelmingly supported celebrating family diversity while prioritizing marriage and stable family structures in their personal lives.

Moreover, data from the 2022 American Family Survey underscores this discrepancy, showing that a significant portion of college-educated liberals endorsed family diversity while maintaining stable marriages themselves. This phenomenon raises questions about the disconnect between public discourse and personal practices among educated elites, who wield considerable influence in shaping cultural norms and policies.

Despite the wealth of research demonstrating the benefits of marriage and stable family environments for children's well-being and societal outcomes, little has been done at a national level to promote these values. Social media platforms often prioritize short-term gratification over long-term commitments, while traditional media outlets fluctuate between acknowledging the benefits of marriage and extolling alternatives.

Critics argue that current tax and benefit laws perpetuate disincentives to marriage, particularly among low-income and working-class Americans, further exacerbating socioeconomic disparities. The consequences of family breakdown, as evidenced by research findings, include increased poverty rates, higher incarceration rates among young men, and declining national happiness levels.

In light of these findings, Henderson's reflections and the broader discourse surrounding family structure and success call for a reevaluation of societal priorities and policies to support stable family environments and promote upward mobility for all individuals.

While many experts acknowledge the benefits of marriage for children, adults, and communities, there's a growing concern over the declining marriage rates across the United States. Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings economist, reflects this sentiment, suggesting that cultural, economic, and political forces have led to a scenario where marriage rates among the less privileged have plummeted while remaining relatively stable among college-educated individuals.

Sawhill argues that even major social programs like food stamps have failed to counteract the rise in child poverty caused by unmarried parenthood. However, she believes that attempting to reverse this trend is a daunting task given the entrenched societal factors at play.

Despite the challenges, some experts argue for proactive measures to promote marriage and stable family structures. One proposed strategy involves promoting truthful narratives about marriage and family life in educational settings and media platforms. Advocates believe that emphasizing the benefits of marriage, such as happiness and stability, could help reshape societal attitudes towards family formation.

Another approach involves incorporating the "success sequence" into school curricula. This sequence, which prioritizes education, work, marriage, and then child-rearing, has shown promise in empowering young adults to make informed decisions about their family lives. Pilot programs in various regions have yielded encouraging results, prompting calls for broader implementation and support from both public and private sectors.

Addressing economic barriers to marriage is also crucial, according to experts. Many public policies inadvertently penalize marriage for low-income families, exacerbating financial hardships. Proposed solutions include adjusting income thresholds for means-tested programs and providing financial incentives for marriage, similar to the benefits offered to married service members in the military.

While these measures may seem ambitious, proponents argue that they are necessary to bridge the growing marriage divide in America. They stress that access to stable family environments should not be limited to the privileged few, but should be a fundamental right for all individuals, regardless of socioeconomic status. As the debate continues, policymakers and advocates are urged to explore innovative solutions to address the complex challenges facing American families in the 21st century.