The Chicken and Egg Dilemma about Marriage
Just as relentless, powerful winds and waves pounding against a strong sea wall can over time bring it down, the institution of the family today is beset by a perfect storm of hostile cultural influences and bad policies that threaten to cripple it, even destroy its existence.
Some experts, instead of attempting to identify the root of the problem, are spending their time debating “chicken and egg” dilemmas. For instance, currently there is controversy over whether the breakdown of the married-mom-and-dad family is from economic or social reasons. Is the decline in marriage the result of the hard economic times or is the bad economy causing the decline in marriage?
One thing all agree on — the evidence is overwhelming — is that children in traditional mom-and-dad married family homes are significantly better off in all measurements of well-being than those who grow up in a single parent, cohabiting, or any other type of household structural arrangement.
While researchers have amply documented that the marital status of parents has significant influence on the well-being outcomes of the children in a home, some dissidents are arguing that the problems associated with family breakdown really stem from a household’s economic situation rather than its composition and whether the parents are married or not.
A recent analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) concluded that a family’s economic status is “more important” for children’s well-being than their marital status. The CCF is a coalition of scholar/researchers for whom Stephanie Coontz serves as the co-chair of the Board of Directors. Dr. Coontz’s writing often contradicts conservative research about marriage, family, children and gender. The CCF takes the position that the drop in incomes is causing the marriage rate decline in the U.S. The CCF report states bluntly, “Depressed household incomes are fueling a rise in single-parent households.”
The bald facts as cited by CCF are clear: Most children (68 percent) grow up in two-parent families (which is a drop from 90 percent in 1960), with only 24 percent living with a single mother (though this number is a dramatic increase from the less than 10 percent in 1960). The connection between single mothers and poverty is well-established fact. In my book “Children at Risk,” citing U.S. Census Bureau poverty data, I note, “In the simplest terms: The poverty rate of single mothers with children is 5 times higher than the rate for married couples with children.” I also point out that poor children in single-parent households constitute almost two-thirds of all poor children (in contrast to 1960, when poor children in single-parent families comprised only 25 percent of all poor children).
The CCF study cites other disadvantages for children in poor families: For instance, far fewer graduate college (9 percent from poor parents vs. 77 percent from higher-income parents) and fewer participate in extracurricular sports (22.5 percent vs. 42.5 percent). The CCF also points to the fact that more children today “receive food stamps than received them before the Great Recession.”
All of this is presented as evidence, says Shannon Cavanagh, Ph.D. an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and principal expert on the study, that “marriage isn’t magic,” as she told Brian Alexander of NBC News. She added, “There is a clear economic bar to marriage and to the extent people cannot meet that bar they are less inclined to marry.” In other words, she claims, “People who can afford marriage get married.”
While there is certainly an economic factor in the marriage equation, there is also a clear association of marriage with education. Increasingly, marriage is more prevalent among those with more education than among the less well-educated. Pew Research Center found in 2013 that “Among parents who live with a child under the age of 18, 89% of college graduates are married, compared with 64% of parents with less than a high school diploma and 70% of those with just a high school diploma.” Further, Pew found that the trend had persisted for decades among those with less education. “At the same time,” they reported, “the share of non-marital births for the less educated has risen dramatically and the likelihood of divorce remains significantly higher among those lacking a college degree than among those who have one.”
In his recent interview with the journal First Things, Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, talked about the marriage divide (a topic that he addressed at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Spring General Assembly in New Orleans in June 2014). Mr. Wilcox talked about the strength of marriage among college-educated Americans: “50 percent of babies to mothers who don’t have college degrees are born outside of wedlock, compared to less than 10 percent of babies born to mothers with college degrees.” Mr. Wilcox warns that marriage is “in trouble” and “losing ground” even among Middle Americans; that is, everywhere “outside of the privileged precincts of upscale inner suburbs and affluent urban neighborhoods.”
Scholars like Kay S. Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute were warning as early as 2007 that cultural changes and bad public policies that discouraged marriage were creating disadvantageous situations for poor and uneducated women. In her book, “Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age,” Ms. Hymowitz shows how “separating marriage from childrearing” is “bad news not only for children, but also, in ways little understood, for the country as a whole.”
We are certainly seeing, especially in African-American communities, “growing inequality and high rates of poverty” as well as all the social ills predicted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, just as Ms. Hymowitz, Mr. Wilcox and other family researchers (including this writer) have chronicled. It is important for those of us who care deeply about the family to keep pointing out that just as wrongly-based values and policies shockingly destroyed the once great city of Detroit, other wrongly-based values and policies are devastating the historical bulwark of communities, cultures and civilizations, the traditional mom-and-dad-family.
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