- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

Marriage is making a comeback. Or, at least, that’s what a panel of 140 observers of marriage including James Q. Wilson and George Gallup, Jr. said last week in a heartening new statement on our oldest social institution. The “marriage movement,” as the authors are calling themselves, compiled existing marriage research to report that a number of key indicators — divorce, unwed childbirth and teen pregnancy, among others — are either pointing in positive directions or have stopped moving in negative ones for the first time in decades. The document, along with other studies making similar conclusions, suggests that maybe some changes for the good in our social attitudes are underway.

The drop in teen pregnancy is the most dramatic: A 10 percent decline in two years. In 2002, the latest year for which we have data, there were 42.9 births per thousand women aged 15-19. That’s down 5 percent from 2001, when 45.3 per thousand occurred. It’s down 10 percent from 2000, when 47.7 births per thousand occurred. Looking at the numbers for early teenagers, the drop was even more dramatic: Pregnancies among girls aged 15-17 were down 14 percent compared with 2000.

An apparent levelling-off of the divorce rate has taken place, too. The data aren’t perfect — some states, including California and Colorado, don’t even keep track of divorce — but the numbers the authors point to, collected by the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, show that the divorce rate decreased slightly from 1991?2001 in the states that do collect data. In some years, the absolute number of divorces actually seems to have decreased; the NCHS recorded more than 3,000 fewer divorces in 1999 than in 1998 despite a growing population. Americans are still quite divorce-prone: There were nearly a million divorces in 2000. But we are now less likely to divorce than at any time in recent decades.

Then there is unwed childbearing, which has stopped growing relative to the population and hasn’t changed much since 1995. As the NCHS data tell it, 43.7 births per thousand unmarried women took place in 2002, down slightly from 2001 with 43.8 per thousand, reversing a decades-long growth trend. In absolute terms there are more children born to unmarried women than ever — over 1.3 million in 2002, the highest number in the six decades for which we have data — but as a percentage of the population it has evened off.

Even marital happiness seems to have levelled off, at least to judge by survey data. Data from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago show that the percentage growth in people who say they are dissatisfied with their marriages started declining quickly in the 1970s and continued to do so through the early 1990s, but now have bottomed out. We’re not regaining the numbers lost in the 1970s and 1980s, but at least we’re getting no worse.

Some of the most promising indicators are the ones on blacks. From 1995 to 2000, the proportion of black children living with a married couple increased by about 4 percent. As an analysis by the Center on Budgetary and Policy Priorities shows, the figure for Americans overall seems to have improved slightly, by 1.5 percent, but the gains were much greater for blacks. Maybe the calls for black fathers to become more involved have been heeded after all.

It’s hard to know exactly why these indicators have improved, and there may be reasons to think the changes owe less to attitudinal shifts than we might hope. Immigration may have changed them, for instance, by shifting overall numbers in more conservative directions on matters of family and marriage. Whatever the reason, the authors sound an encouraging note. “For the first time in several generations,” they write, “those working for the renewal of marriage in the United States may have the wind at their backs.”

To take advantage, they’re aiming for what they call a marriage renaissance in the United States, beginning with heightened awareness of marriage’s value as a social institution, its relative decline in recent decades and the recent comeback the numbers are suggesting. The note of optimism they sound is a good beginning. Marriage’s future “is an event in freedom, dependent upon the conscious choices that we make as individuals and as people,” the authors continue. “There is nothing inevitable about the decline of marriage in America.” We agree, and we hope the changing marriage winds continue to fill their sails.

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