Holiday season means family gatherings, which often means catching up on family dramas.
For anyone who finds himself or herself sitting alone at night, maybe near the twinkling lights, wondering how their family got so messed up and what can be done to solve it, here is an analysis that might be helpful.
For at least a generation, marriage and family cohesion have been unraveling in America's low-income families.
Now this rending of family ties is spreading into America's middle class, the home of hard-working, blue-collar, service-industry people who graduated from high school but didn't quite land that college degree.
The result is a growing "marriage gap," in which poor and now middle-class Americans are drifting away from the one social institution most strongly associated with wealth, health, success and well-being.
Instead, the richest, most-educated Americans are dominating the marriage market, marrying well, staying married, and raising their children in intact, stable homes in prosperous communities.
"We cannot afford to be a nation where marriage is a luxury good," W. Bradford Wilcox and Chuck Donovan wrote last week in Christianity Today magazine.
It's not enough to repair the nation's economic house, they wrote. Renewing marriage must become a national priority — in fact, it needs "something on the scale of a Marshall Plan for marriage," Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Donovan wrote, referring to America's massive rebuilding efforts in Europe after World War II.
The source of these men's conviction is data showing that America's "moderately educated" middle class is getting weaker on the very things that should bring stability into their lives.
For instance, the 10-year divorce rate for moderately educated Americans is 37 percent, about the same as undereducated Americans (i.e., high school dropouts), and far worse than the 11 percent divorce rate of the well-educated college graduates.
Even the emotional satisfaction of marriage is ebbing for the less-educated. When spouses aged 18 to 60 were asked if they were "very happy" in their marriage, almost 70 percent of the highly educated spouses said yes — the same number as in the 1970s.
But for moderately educated Americans, the number of "very happy" spouses slid from 68 percent in the 1970s to 57 percent in 2000s. The least-educated spouses also lost ground, falling from 59 percent "very happy" to 52 percent.
There are many more related findings in the new report, "When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America," issued by the Institute for American Values and National Marriage Project (NMP). Mr. Wilcox, assistant sociology professor at University of Virginia, directs the NMP.
But the key questions are, why is marriage becoming so difficult for so many people, and what are we the people going to do about it?
The roiling of marriage has stemmed from a "decline in marriage-friendly values" and a disconnection from religious attachments, Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Donovan, senior research fellow at Heritage Foundation, wrote in their Christianity Today article. As faith and pro-marriage values have faded, so has the "marriage mindset."
The solution is to realize that America's economic prosperity, well-being — and in my view, even happiness — is directly tied to the depth and breadth of its marriage culture. Family breakdown costs the nation $112 billion a year, according to one analysis. Father absence costs $100 billion a year, says another.
There are many ways to strengthen marriage, from tax breaks to relationship classes to strengthening job prospects for young men who didn't go to college. A bill with $75 million apiece for marriage grants and responsible fatherhood grants is awaiting President Obama's signature.
Remembering the value of a religious life is another core part of the solution. In this holiday season, amid the twinkling lights, twinkling stars, children's hugs, laughter and tears, may there be many such epiphanies.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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