- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The U.S. marriage rate has fallen to its lowest level in 120 years after having declined steadily since the 1980s and plateauing over the past decade, a study says.

The declining marriage rate holds social and economic implications, from household formation to the U.S. birthrate, researchers and observers said.

Only 6.5 wedding licenses for every 1,000 U.S. adults were issued in 2018, the most recent year with complete data, according to a study published Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s a 6% decline from 2017 and comes after a relatively stable rate between 2009 and 2017, when about seven couples married per every 1,000 Americans.

“Studies have shown that adults in the United States are increasingly postponing marriage, and that a record number of current youth and young adults are projected to forgo marriage altogether,” researchers Sally C. Curtin and Paul D. Sutton said in the study.

“Marriage has been shown to be correlated with positive health outcomes and longevity, and a recent report showed that age-adjusted death rates for both males and females are lowest for those who were married at the time of death,” the researchers said.

The study, which examines population data from 1900 to 2018, notes that the U.S. rate reached a peak of 16.4 new marriages per 1,000 people in 1946 and slowly declined to about 8.5 in 1962. The rate rose again in the 1960s and peaked at 10.9 per 1,000 in 1972 before declining again.

After reaching a peak of 10.6 in 1986, the marriage rate steadily declined and hovered at about seven per 1,000 from 2009 to 2017, the study says.

Observers suggest several economic, cultural and religious factors that are driving folks away from the altar or the courthouse. One major cause for a declining interest in marriage, particularly among women, could be the low economic prospects of men, especially working-class men.

A recent study in the Journal of Marriage and Family says marriage rates, particularly since the Great Recession, have fallen because unmarried women face a shortage of “economically attractive partners” in the U.S. market.

“[D]eclines in marriage are driven at least in part by reductions in employment prospects and earnings among men, especially less-skilled racial and ethnic minorities at the bottom of the education distribution,” researchers Daniel T. Lichter, Joseph P. Price and Jeffrey M. Swigert said in their study, which was published in September.

In addition, researchers say a person’s married status reflects class and education attainment to a greater degree than ever before. While Americans with a bachelor’s degree marry each other roughly at the same rate today as in 1990, there has been a 13% drop in the number of Americans married with only a high school diploma during that same period.

Meanwhile, the U.S. birthrate has taken a hit. The CDC reported last year that 3.7 million babies were born in 2018 — a 2% drop from 2017 and the lowest birthrate in 30 years. Like other Western democracies, the U.S. has more older people heading toward retirement and fewer young people who could replace the workforce, observers have noted.

Researchers also note that economic stresses for young people, including stagnant wages and the increasing costs of college and housing, could lead to less interest in marriage and more comfort with cohabitation.

Jay Zagorsky, a professor in the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, told The Washington Times that he believes the benefits to marriage may no longer outweigh the costs.

“Marriage is hard work,” Mr. Zagorsky wrote in a 2016 blog post that he says still reflects his viewpoint. “Living with someone means taking into account another person’s feelings, moods, needs and desires instead of focusing just on your own. This extra work has large time, emotional and financial costs.”

He says cohabitation requires less cost.

In November, Pew Research reported that for the first time more Americans had lived with a romantic partner (59%) than had been in a marriage (50%), formerly a cultural taboo.

However, Pew also reported that more Americans than ever before do not attend religious services regularly, reflecting relaxed sexual mores.

In addition to growing cohabitation, Americans are waiting longer to get married. The median age of women to marry for the first time has risen from 20 in 1960 to 27 in 2017. It’s a similar aging for first-time grooms (from 22 to 29).

Regardless, social scientists agree that the marriages of today are reflective of past generations.

“A few years back, a local high school teacher came to a unit on marriage and polled the class, and it was a huge majority said they’d never wanted to get married,” David Steenson, a licensed independent social worker who counsels married couples in Des Moines, Iowa, told The Times. “When she asked them why, they’d said they’d never seen one that worked.”

While roughly half of all adult Americans are married, that number is down significantly from 1960, when 72% of American adults were married. From 2000 to 2017, the divorce rate dropped from four new divorces for every 1,000 Americans to 2.9, possibly contributing to the lower rate of new marriages in 2018.

“There are clear and uncontroversial reasons why two parents are better than one: time, money and energy, to name just three,” Brookings Institution researchers Richard V. Reeves and Christopher Pulliam said in a report last month on declining marriage rates. “And while there has been a decline in the chances of middle-class children having two parents in the household, the starker divide is in marriage rates.”

Moreover, says the CDC, married people live longer than single people. Mortality rates, according to a study by the CDC’s Division of Vital Statistics, were found to be much higher among single Americans (1,443 deaths per 100,000 people) than married people (779).

The CDC’s report Wednesday says the “most pronounced” fluctuations in the marriage rate over the past century occurred during the Great Depression and World War II. Before hitting its high point at the outset of the baby boom, the marriage rate bottomed out to fewer than eight new marriages per 1,000 people in 1932.

Since the early 1980s, when the marriage rate was last in double digits, the U.S. has seen a “steady decline” in the number of marriages.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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