- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 1, 2009

Over the years, I have seen several attempts to measure the well-being of our nation’s families — Bill Bennett once issued the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, and the Family Research Council had the Family Portrait, to name two.

The rationale for these “report cards” was simple: If you can measure problems, you have a better chance of solving them.

Now comes a new measuring device called the Marriage Index.

It was developed by scholars at public policy institutions, including the Institute for American Values (IAV) and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting (NCAAMP), and universities such as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Denver.

The Marriage Index is composed of five leading marriage indicators, plus a composite score, for a total of six scores.

It finds that America is not doing well on marriage.

Back in 1970, the composite Marriage Index score was a not-too-bad 76.2 out of 100. But it has eroded over the decades, and stands at a dismal 60.3 in 2008.

I will explain these numbers below, but first let me say I am a fan of fearless moral inventories, plus I am perennially optimistic, so these numbers are galvanizing, not depressing.

The Marriage Index authors’ goal is the same: They want to empower and energize American leaders and people to fight for better marriages and a better marriage culture.

“[U]nless we know where we are, and why that matters, we can’t know where to go,” the Marriage Index authors said in their new report.

“The idea is for it to become as normal and customary to talk about the Marriage Index as it is for the leading economic indicators,” David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the IAV, told me recently.

The Marriage Index report also contains 101 ideas about how to improve America’s marriage scores. These ideas revolve around such issues as marriage education, couples’ counseling, divorce reform, tax policies, faith-based activities, research, teen-pregnancy prevention, and (my favorite) journalism that specializes in marriage and family life.

The Marriage Index is designed to track five measurements — the percentage of married adults, ages 20 to 54; the percentage of married persons who are “very happy” with their marriage; the percentage of first marriages that are intact; the percentage of births to married parents; and the percentage of children living with their own married parents.

These five indicators are then combined to reach an overall score, e.g., 60.3 in 2008.

The Marriage Index shows how all five indicators have declined since 1970, in some cases dramatically. For instance, the percentage of married young and middle-aged adults has slumped from almost 80 percent to below 60 percent. The percentage of births to married parents also has plummeted, from nearly 90 percent to 60 percent.

The least erosion was in the number of couples who said their marriages were “very happy” — this fell from 67 percent to 62 percent. The “happiness” indicator is in the index because quality of marriage matters — a good marriage “meets the needs of adults as well as children,” said Elizabeth Marquardt, who directs the Center on Marriage and Families at IAV.

The Marriage Index also includes an African American Marriage Index, which uses the same indicators.

The overall score for black marriages is, as expected, quite sobering — it fell from 64.0 in 1970 to 39.6 in 2008.

But there’s “nothing inevitable about this trend,” said Linda Malone-Colon, founder of the NCAAMP at Hampton University and one of the lead authors of the Marriage Index.

“We absolutely can take positive steps to improve this number, and we have to,” she said.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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