Although Americans spend $50 billion a year on weddings, a large segment of the population is making an exodus from the institution, says a new report from a family-values think tank.
The disappearance of marriage in "middle America" is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in the same communities, and "strikes at the very heart of the American Dream," scholars Elizabeth Marquardt, David Blankenhorn, Robert I. Lerman, Linda Malone-Colon and W. Bradford Wilcox said in a paper released Sunday.
They offer 10 recommendations to President Obama and other policymakers to renew a marriage culture.
"One of the reasons marriage is so important is that it's the best thing we've figured out to keep fathers connected to the children they've produced," said Mrs. Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values (IAV).
"Fathers matter, and they matter for everybody. We don't have certain classes of children for whom [having a father] doesn't matter," she said.
The 10 recommendations include ending tax penalties for married couples, investing in relationship-skills education and premarital education for persons seeking to form stepfamilies, divorce reform, and tripling the tax credit for minor children.
Another tactic is for the nation's leaders, including the president, to "engage Hollywood" in discussions about positive depictions of marriage and fatherhood in the popular culture, said the 2012 State of Our Unions report, "The President's Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent," which was released by IAV and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
A companion report, "Social Indicators of Marital Health and Well-Being," showed that U.S. high school students continue to have high aspirations for marriage: Eighty percent of high school girls and 72 percent of high school boys said having a good marriage and family life is "extremely important," according to Monitoring the Future surveys from 2007 to 2010.
But the steep decline in U.S. marriages can be seen when marriages are measured against the number of marriageable women. In 1970, for instance, there were 76.5 marriages for every 1,000 single women ages 15 and older. By 2010, this plummeted to 32.9 marriages per 1,000 single women.
The "60 percent" referred to by the report is the population, aged 25 to 60, who have a high-school diploma but not a college degree.
Marriage is rapidly slipping away from this "middle America" segment of the population, the report said. As recently as the 1980s, only 13 percent of children born to mothers with this moderate level of education were born out of wedlock. By the late 2000s, though, 44 percent of children were born to single mothers.
"The plight of this population who once married in high proportions and formed families within marriage — and who still aspire to marriage, but increasingly are unable to achieve it — is the social challenge for our times," said the report.
As a result, middle-American families are beginning to resemble the "fragile families" led by high school dropouts, where economic stress, partner conflict, single parenting and troubling outcomes for children are not uncommon.
"We've had several marriage debates in this country," said Mrs. Marquardt, citing Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1960s report on the black family, the debate about single motherhood in the 1990s welfare reform, and the ongoing gay-marriage debate. It's time for a new marriage debate about the "hollowing out" of marriage in middle America, she said. "There are a few things you need to do to be middle class, and one of them generally is to get and stay married."
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