Lately there's a lot of panic about marriage. That panic is reflected in the title of a report released The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2010 [PDF] this week titled "When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America." This annual report is co-produced by the National Marriage Project, a research project at the University of Virginia, and the Center for Marriage and Families, a sub-set of the conservative Institute for American Values, which counts among its scholars Prop 8 supporter and National Organization for Marriage spokesperson Maggie Gallagher.
The report notes several facts about marriage, notably something that I blogged about not that long ago, that marriage is remaining popular among the highly educated but falling in popularity among the less educated. The State of Our Unions report calls this group of people the "moderately educated," or those with high school degrees and maybe some college or vocational training. The executive summary notes begins by declaring "In middle America, marriage is in trouble."
And they seem to have the data to back such a statement up: Not only is the difference in those getting hitched in the first place, but it seems that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to get divorced. If you're highly educated, the likelihood of you getting divorced within your first 10 years of marriage is just 11 percent (down 4 percent from 1970). The "moderately educated," on the other hand, face a 37 percent (+1) chance of divorce or separation. The least educated, those without a high school diploma, in other words, have a 36 percent (-10) chance.
For the writers of this report, this is very bad news. They write, "For if marriage is increasingly unachievable for our moderately educated citizens—a group that represents 58 percent of the adult population, (age 25 to 60)—then it is likely that we will witness the emergence of a new society. For a substantial share of the United States, economic mobility will be out of reach, their children's life chances will diminish, and large numbers of young men will live apart from the civilizing power of married life."
That's quite the statement on this trend. Though it seems that marriage is becoming less popular among those who are less educated and the less educated are more likely to divorce within 10 years, I'm having a harder time finding it quite the crisis that the report makes it out to be. Though it's true that there's high correlation between marriage and "successful" children, it's tough to tell if marriage is the thing that's causing that success. The one useful thing Elizabeth Gilbert laid out in Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, what many called a self-indulgent book, was a chapter on the history of marriage and many of its purported benefits. After analyzing the data, she notes that it stability, not marriage itself, that seems best for children.
That's not to knock marriage itself or those who want to get married. Even the authors of the report note that "being married" is an important value. Roughly three-quarters of every class of education believe marriage is important; 75 percent of the least educated, 76 percent of the moderately educated and 79 percent of the highly educated.
But if we're experiencing a trend where marriage is less important for some subsets of the population, it's hard for me to contemplate how that is a state of crisis. After are, there are lots of things that make the moderately educated unhappy. The crappy economy, for instance. And who's to say that this declining marriage rate among the moderately educated isn't just folks putting marriage off until they have better jobs? (Or jobs at all?) People are known to delay divorce in tough economic times, and it seems these days, they're delaying marriage as well (if not parenthood).
But it's hard to deny that the way we've set up marriage means that by default we've made marriage into a status symbol: a huge party that costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, joint tax filings, diamond engagement ring worth two month's salary, etc. It's no wonder the highly educated are finding marriage more attractive while the lower educated might find it less so. The report notes that there is a growing gap in America today, not just between the rich and the poor, but also a gap between the rich and the middle class. The gap in marriage interest seems easily explainable when you look at social and economic factors.
Instead, we're faced with panic over how marriage is in the decline (sometimes even blaming feminism). Even if marriage is in decline, I'm not convinced that that's the ultimate undoing of America. Surely other things, like rising poverty, poor public education, and serious social injustices hurt Americans far worse.
In the end, it's important not to view larger trends as something that can be blamed on the choices of individuals. And if some people are finding that marriage isn't for them—whether highly educated or not—it's important to respect that choice.