Report Shows Big Downside to Family Disintegration
By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, 10 SEPT. 2007 (ZENIT)
Marriage continues to decline in the
United States, bringing with it numerous adverse consequences for
individuals, and society in general. This is one of the main conclusions
of a recent study.
The National Marriage Report released its annual publication "The State
of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America 2007" this
summer. The center is based at Rutgers, the State University of New
The authors of the study are two academics well-known for their writings
on family and marriage issues: David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe
Whitehead. They found that from 1970 to 2005 there was a decline of
nearly 50% in the annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult
A significant proportion of this drop was simply due to delaying
marriage until an older age. Nevertheless, more people simply don't
marry or are unmarried, due to cohabitation and a decrease in the
numbers of divorced people to remarry.
The report cites estimates that about a quarter of unmarried women 25-39
are currently living with a partner, and an additional quarter have
lived with a partner at some time in the past. As well, over half of all
first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared with
virtually none 50 years ago.
Cohabitation is more common among those of lower educational and income
levels, as well as those who are less religious than their peers.
The report also rebuts a couple of myths often used by anti-family
forces. The first myth is that living together before marriage is useful
in order to find out whether the couple can get along, thereby avoiding
a bad marriage and an eventual divorce. This is not borne out by the
facts, the report observes.
"In fact, a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live
together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage,"
the report comments.
The report admits that there are diverse opinions over how the data can
be interpreted, but at a minimum the authors conclude: "What can be said
for certain is that no evidence has yet been found that those who
cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not."
The second myth refuted by the report is the affirmation that even
though fewer are marrying, those who marry have higher quality
marriages. Not so, reply Popenoe and Whitehead, noting that "the best
available evidence on the topic" shows a decline over the last 25 years
in the number of both men and women who affirm their marriages are "very
The report also reveals a growing social divide when it comes to
marriage. Among those who have received a university education the
institution of marriage has strengthened in the last couple of decades.
College-educated women now marry at a higher rate compared with the rest
of the population, and they are also less favorably inclined toward
divorce than less educated women.
In addition, among those who delay marriage past age 30,
college-educated women are the only ones more likely to have children
after marriage rather than before.
There is, thus, a growing "marriage gap" in America, notes the report,
between those who are well educated and those who are not.
In fact, for those without a university education, "the marriage
situation remains gloomy," according to the report. This is due to a
combination of a continuing decline in marriage rates and a growing
percentage of out-of-wedlock births. By the year 2000, fully 40% of high
school drop-out mothers were living without husbands, compared with just
12% of college-graduate mothers, states the report.
Since hitting a high point in the early 1980s, divorce has moderately
declined. Overall, the lifetime probability of a first marriage ending
in divorce or separation remains between 40% and 50%. The risk of
divorce, however, varies quite notably. The chances of divorce are much
higher for those who are poor, people who are high-school drop outs, and
couples who marry as teenagers. Couples who have a family background of
divorce, as well as those who have no religious affiliation, are also
more likely to divorce.
In addition to the personal consequences, the breakdown in marriage and
family life over the last few decades has had a severe economic impact.
A section of the report looks at the economic benefits of marriage for
"Married couples create more economic assets on average than do
otherwise similar singles or cohabiting couples," argues the report.
Married couples live more frugally, as opposed to two adults living as
singles, and they also save and invest more for the future. Men also
tend to become more economically productive after marriage, earning
between 10% and 40% more than do single men with similar education and
The increase in divorce has also resulted in more inequality and
poverty. The report points out that a large body of research has shown
that both divorce and unmarried childbearing increase child poverty. One
study even went so far as to show that if family structure had not
changed between 1960 and 1998, the black child poverty rate in 1998
would have been 28.4% rather than 45.6%, and the white child poverty
rate would have been 11.4% rather than 15.4%.
Divorce also means higher costs for governments, due to such factors as
welfare payments and increased juvenile delinquency. The nation's 1.4
million divorces in 2002 are estimated to have cost taxpayers more than
$30 billion, the report affirms.
The increase in single-parent families also imposes a high cost on
children. By 2006 some 28% of American children lived with just one
parent. "This means that more children each year are not living in
families that include their own married, biological parents, which by
all available empirical evidence is the gold standard for insuring
optimal outcomes in a child's development," commented Popenoe in his
introductory essay to the report.
Popenoe also asks how the breakdown in marriage and the family could be
repaired. One way to do this is through a cultural transformation led by
religion. With the passing of years, Popenoe continues, the United
States and other countries have become ever more secular and
individualistic. This is particularly the case among young people.
Strengthening religion and the family is one of Benedict XVI's common
themes. The family is a priority of the new evangelization, he declared
July 5 to a group of bishops from the Dominican Republic present in Rome
for their five-yearly visit.
The Pontiff said, "The Church desires that the family truly be the place
where the person is born, matures and is educated for life, and where
parents, by loving their children tenderly, prepare them for healthy
interpersonal relationships which embody moral and human values in the
midst of a society so heavily marked by hedonism and religious
More recently, when responding to questions Sept. 1 posed by the youth
gathered for an encounter with the Pope in Loreto, Italy, Benedict XVI
stated that the marginalization affecting so many people today in part
is due to the fragmentation of families.
The family, he pointed out, "should not only be a place where
generations meet, but also where they learn to live, learn the essential
virtues, and this is in danger." We need to make sure the family
survives and is once more at the center of society, the Pope urged. A
task more urgent than ever in the light of current trends.