The Future of Marriage in America
htm The State of Our Unions The Social Health of Marriage in America 2007 Essay: The Future of Marriage in America David Popenoe © Copyright 2007 Introduction In this year’s essay, David Popenoe argues that long-term trends point to the gradual weakening of marriage as the primary social institution of family life. More Americans today are living together, marrying at older ages or not at all, and rearing children in cohabiting or solo parent households.
Overall, the U. S. trends are following the far-advanced trends toward nonmarriage in Northwestern European nations, albeit at a slower and more uneven pace. Popenoe attributes the weakening of marriage to a broad cultural shift away from religion and social traditionalism and toward faith in personal independence and tolerance for diverse life styles – otherwise known as “secular individualism. ” This cultural shift is a central feature of modern societies and therefore unlikely to be reversed.
Compared to Europeans, moreover, Americans are more libertarian and thus may be more susceptible to harshly negative consequences of secular individualism on family life. As Popenoe concludes, it will probably require a cultural awakening, perhaps prompted by rational self-interest, to avoid such an outcome. We will have to adopt the view that personal happiness depends on high-trust and lasting relationships and that such relationships require constraints on short-term adult interests in order to foster long-term commitments to children, and thus to the future.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead THE FUTURE OF MARRIAGE IN AMERICA David Popenoe Almost a decade ago, in our first annual State of Our Unions Report in 1999, the lead essay was “What’s Happening to Marriage. ” The picture we painted was hopeful, if not especially optimistic. Marriage, we reported, “is weakening but it is too soon to write its obituary. ” In this, our ninth annual report to the nation, I want to summarize what has been happening to marriage in recent years and peer into the future.
One question in particular is compelling: Is marriage in America headed in the direction of the European nations, where it is an even weaker social institution than in the United States? Or are we, as in other areas of our national life—such as our higher level of religious participation and belief—the great exception to the seemingly entrenched trends of the developed, Western societies? This raises, in turn, another intriguing question: Is America still a single nation in family terms, or are we becoming more divided by region and class?
Marriage and Family Trends of the Past Decade There can be no doubt that the institution of marriage has continued to weaken in recent years. Whereas marriage was once the dominant and single acceptable form of living arrangement for couples and children, it is no longer. Today, there is more “family diversity:” Fewer adults are married, more are divorced or remaining single, and more are living together outside of marriage or living alone. [The most recent data are available in the second half of this report. Today, more children are born out-of-wedlock (now almost four out of ten), and more are living in stepfamilies, with cohabiting but unmarried adults, or with a single parent. This means that more children each year are not living in families that include their own married, biological parents, which by all available empirical evidence is the gold standard for insuring optimal outcomes in a child’s development. In the late 1990s quite a bit was written about a “marriage and family turnaround,” or a reversal of the many family weakening trends.
Most negative family trends have slowed appreciably in recent years; they have not continued in the dramatically swift trajectory upward that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s. Much of this may be due simply to the slowing of social trends as they “mature. ” The only major family trend that has actually reversed direction is divorce. After rising steeply, beginning around 1965, the divorce rate has dropped gradually since the early 1980s, apparently mainly the result of adults becoming better educated and marrying at a later age.
Other possible reasons for the decreasing divorce rate are the rise of non-marital cohabitation and a decline in second and subsequent marriages. Divorcees, for example, have become more likely to cohabit rather than remarry, thus avoiding remarriages that have always had a disproportionately high risk of divorce. The Marriage Gap One surprising development of recent years is the growth of a marriage and divorce “gap” between differently educated segments of the population.
People who have completed college (around a quarter of the population) tend to have significantly higher marriage and lower divorce rates compared to those with less education. Among those married in the early 1990s, for example, only 16. 5 percent of college educated women were divorced within ten years, compared to 46 percent for high school dropouts. Indeed, most of the recent divorce rate decline has been among the college educated; for those with less than a high school education, the divorce rate actually has been rising. 1) The weakening of marriage and the resultant growth of family diversity thus is found much more prominently among those with less education and associated lower incomes. The underlying reason for this may be as simple as the fact that the personality and social characteristics enabling one to complete college are similar to those that foster today’s long-term marriages. Or, that delayed entry into the adult world of work and childbearing, and the increase in income and knowledge that college typically fosters, better allows mature values and financial security to undergird choice of partner and family life.
Whatever the reasons, this marriage and divorce gap has been a major contributor to the growing economic inequality in America. Some expect the marriage gap to grow larger in the future because children tend to follow the family behavior of their parents. Children of the educated and financially comfortable are better socialized to marry successfully and to contain childbearing within marriage, whereas children of the lower classes often do not have this advantage. But it is doubtful that this gap will have much effect on the over-all drift of marriage in America.
The increase in the college-educated portion of the population has been slowing appreciably. And the fertility of college-educated women has dropped. Twenty-four percent of college-educated women aged 40-44 were childless in 2004, compared to only 15 percent of women that age who didn’t finish high school. (2) On a national scale, the continuation of this fertility discrepancy could seriously counteract any beneficial family effects of higher education. The European Direction No matter how weak it has become, however, compared to other modern nations marriage remains at the center of American life.
About 85 percent of Americans are expected to marry sometime in their lives, compared to less than 70 percent in a number of European nations. Only ten percent of Americans in an international survey agreed that “marriage is an out-dated institution,” compared to 26 percent in the UK and 36 percent in France. (3) Only about ten percent of American couples are cohabiting outside of marriage, compared to almost one third in Sweden. And our commercial wedding industry certainly has become huge. Yet an overriding question is whether marriage and family trends in every modern society are headed in a common direction.
In other words, is there a set of family trends endemic to modern (urban, industrial, democratic, and still mostly Western) societies that supercedes economic, cultural, and even religious differences among regions and nations? If so, the current family system in the United States is not an exception but merely a laggard; we will gradually be swept up in the tide. Up to now, the pacesetters in most contemporary marriage and family trends—all moving in the direction of a non-marriage culture—have been the nations of Northwestern Europe, especially the Nordic countries.
They have the latest age at first marriage, the lowest marriage and highest non-marital cohabitation rates, and the largest number of out-of-wedlock births. The nations in Southern Europe such as Spain, Italy and Greece, with less cohabitation and fewer out-of-wedlock births, tend to look more like the United States. Family traditionalism remains stronger in these southern nations, and young people live longer in their childhood homes, often until they marry, rather than living independently or in cohabiting unions.
The United Kingdom and the Anglo-settler nations, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, typically stand somewhere in between the two extremes. But with respect to each of the dominant family trends of recent decades the other modern nations have been moving, albeit at varying speeds and not without some temporary lapses, in the Northwest European direction. The percentage of people getting married has been going down, the number of people cohabiting outside of marriage has been increasing, and the out-of-wedlock birth percentage has been skyrocketing.
Between the early to mid 1990s and the early 2000s, for example, the marriage rate dropped twelve percent in Italy, 14 percent in Spain, 22 percent in Canada, 28 percent in New Zealand and 24 percent in the United States. At the same time, the non-marital cohabitation percentage (of all couples) climbed 23 percent in Italy and Australia, 53 percent in the United Kingdom, and 49 percent in the United States. The nonmarital birth rate jumped 24 percent in the United States, 48 percent in the United Kingdom, 96 percent in Italy, and a whopping 144 percent in Spain. 4) In one major respect the United States has long been the pacesetter and not the laggard. For generations, we have had the highest divorce rate. Yet even this is now changing. The U. S. rate has been dropping for several decades, while the divorce rate in many European nations has stayed the same or been climbing. The number of divorces per one thousand married women in the United Kingdom in 2002 was 14. 4, not too far from the United States rate of 18. 4. In the past, the incidence of family breakup was closely aligned with the incidence of divorce, but this is no longer the case.
Because more people now cohabit in place of marrying, when a cohabiting couple breaks up it is not registered as a divorce would be. Unfortunately, we have no standard reporting system for the breakup of cohabiting couples, but all empirical studies show that cohabiting couples breakup at a much higher rate than married couples. While only ten percent of American couples cohabit, some 20 percent of British couples do. So if we are considering total family breakup, it is likely the case that Britain plus a number of other European nations now surpass us.
There is one other important respect in which America has been in the vanguard of family trends—we have the highest percentage of mother-only families. Many European nations have a much higher percentage of out-of-wedlock births than we do, but the great majority of these births are to unmarried but cohabiting couples. In America, much more often, children are born to a lone mother with the father not in residence and often out of the child’s life. Nearly half of all extramarital births in America were of this nature in 2001, according to the latest available data. 5) One reason is our relatively high percentage of births to teenagers, 80 percent of which are non-marital and more than half of those to lone mothers; another is that 70 percent of all unwed births to African Americans are to lone mothers. However, the gap in mother-only families between the United States and other nations of the West is also in the process of diminishing. Being born to a lone mother is only one route to living in a mother-only family. Another route is through the break-up of parents after the child is born, which is far more common among parents who cohabit compared to those who marry.
With parental break-up rates in other nations climbing rapidly, thanks largely to increased non-marital cohabitation, many of these nations are catching up with us in the alarming statistic of mother-only families. Even by the early 1990s, according to the calculations of several scholars, New Zealand had caught up with the United States with nearly 50 percent of children expected to experience single parenting by age 15, and the figure for Canada and five European countries exceeded 33 percent. (6) These percentages would probably be much higher if they were recalculated today using more recent data.
So if we are moving in the direction of the more negative family trends of other modern nations, and they are moving in the direction of our negative trends, where does this leave us? Aren’t we all in a common basket, destined to witness an institution of marriage that is ever weakening? Before considering this, let us first have a look at the possibility that America is becoming increasingly bifurcated into two distinct cultures. Could it be that only one part of America is moving in a European family direction? The American Red-Blue Divide
The recent family trends in the Western nations have been largely generated by a distinctive set of cultural values that scholars have come to label “secular individualism. ” It features the gradual abandonment of religious attendance and beliefs, a strong leaning toward “expressive” values that are preoccupied with personal autonomy and self-fulfillment, and a political emphasis on egalitarianism and the tolerance of diverse lifestyles. An established empirical generalization is that the greater the dominance of secular individualism in a culture, the more fragmented the families.
The fundamental reason is that the traditional nuclear family is a somewhat inegalitarian group (not only between husbands and wives but also parents and children) that requires the suppression of some individuality and also has been strongly supported by, and governed by the rules of, orthodox religions. As a seeming impediment to personal autonomy and social equality, therefore, the traditional family is an especially attractive unit for attacks from a secular individualistic perspective. On average, America has been moving in the direction of secular individualism, as can be seen in the general drift of our family trends.
But the “on average” covers up some very substantial variations, some of which account for why, looked at internationally, we are a nation with relatively conservative family values. A recent National Cultural Values Survey (7) found that American adults usefully can be split into three groups, based on the degree to which they have embraced secular individualism, ranging from the Orthodox to the Progressives, with Independents in the middle. The survey found 31 percent of the population in the religiously Orthodox category, 17 percent in the secular Progressive category, and 46 percent as Independents.
The Orthodox category is far larger than one finds in Western Europe and the other Anglo nations, and the Progressive category (i. e. , secular individualist) is considerably smaller, and therein lies the major basis for American family exceptionalism. One thing that makes these categories so prominent in American culture is that they are strongly expressed geographically. As analyzed by demographers at the University of Michigan, the two extremes are reflected in the so-called Red (Republican) and Blue (Democratic) state distinction frequently made in recent national political analysis. 8) The more Progressive Blue states are principally those of the Northeast, the Upper Midwest, and the West Coast, while the more Orthodox Red states are found in the South, the lower Midwest, and the Mountain region of the West. Reflecting their different ideologies, the Blue states tend to have lower marriage and higher cohabitation rates, along with lower fertility, while the Red states are more traditional in their family structure. [See box in the second half of this report. The ideology and family behavior found in the Blue states resembles that of the other Western nations, although not quite as far down the path of Progressivism. If one were referring only to this part of America, one would not be talking about American exceptionalism. The large Orthodox population of the Red states, however, does give the United States a unique configuration in the modern world. If it were not for this population, we would not be having a “culture war” and we probably would not even be having a national conversation about the weakening of marriage.
There is no such conversation about marriage in the Northwestern European nations, despite the fact that the institution of marriage is considerably weaker there than it is here. It is clear that the family structure of America is exceptional in some respects. The question is, are we so exceptional that we can resist the modern trend of marriage and family decline? So far the answer is no—we have been headed down the same path as every other modern, Western society toward ever-increasing secular individualism with its associated family structures.
If this trend continues, the family structure of the Red states will come to look more and more like today’s Blue states, and the Blue states will look ever more like Europe. The Prospect for Cultural Change To reverse this trend of marriage and family decline would take a cultural transformation of some kind, and it is interesting to consider and evaluate what this might look like, and what could bring it about. One potential source of change would be a significant expansion in influence and authority of today’s orthodox, anti-individualist religions.
Much has been written in recent years about the weakening of secularization, pointing out that modernization no longer necessarily means the demise of religion. The evidence for this comes from the newly modernizing countries of the world, however, where orthodox religions have actually been gaining, rather than losing, strength. There is no evidence that anything like this has been happening to date in the Western European and Anglo nations. Quite the opposite; with each passing year these nations—including the United States—are more secular than ever before.
The National Cultural Values Survey noted above found that regular churchgoing has dipped below 50 percent and only 36 percent believe “people should live by God’s principles,” concluding that “America no longer enjoys cultural consensus on God, religion, and what constitutes right and wrong. “(9) A powerful indicator of future trends are the beliefs and attitudes of today’s young people, which are unmistakably more secular and individualist than those of their elders.
A recent study concluded that emerging adults (ages 18-24) in America, compared to their earlier counterparts and their older contemporaries, are more disaffected and disconnected from society, more cynical or negative about people, and have moved in a liberal direction. (10) A Pew Foundation national survey found that 20 percent of today’s young people (18-24) say they have no religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic, nearly double the percentage of the non-religious found in that age group less than 20 years ago.
In the same time period the percentage of young people who did not agree that they had “old fashioned values about family and marriage” jumped from 17 percent to 31 percent. (11) A study in Britain, starkly pointing up the entrenched nature of this generational shift, found that a child with two religious parents has only a 50 percent chance of being religious, while a child with one religious parent has 25 percent chance of being religious. 12) Another cultural transformation that could move the family in a more traditional direction is widespread immigration. In combination with low birthrates, massive immigration is capable of changing the culture, social experiences, and self-identity of a population—including the ideologies of secularism and individualism. This possibility is beginning to be discussed in Europe, where birthrates in many nations remain well below replacement level and immigration, mostly from orthodox Muslim countries with high birthrates, is high and growing.
The percentage of foreign born in many Western European nations is now similar to that in America, around twelve percent, but the birthrates of these groups are typically far higher than the indigenous populations. Projections are that the percentage of people of “foreign origin” may reach as high as one third in some European nations by 2050, and far higher than that in the major cities. (13) What is not known is how these new immigrants ultimately will react to secular individualism and the other cultural beliefs and practices of modern, Western democracies.
As many have noted, because of long-standing antipathies between peoples of the Muslim faith and those of Christianity, often violent and going back well more than a millennium, it does seem possible that Europe faces the prospect of a major cultural transformation sometime in the future through immigrants who, rather than assimilate, will pull the culture in a new direction. The immigration situation in the United States, however, is different, and it does not seem as likely that in the foreseeable future immigrant groups will be able to seriously shift our culture in a more traditional direction.
The most likely candidate for cultural change, of course, is the growing Hispanic population. The percentage of Hispanics is projected to reach 25 percent of the total population by 2050, when non-Hispanic Whites will make up only a slim majority. (14) But unlike Europe we are already a nation made up of many different immigrant groups; many Hispanics have been here for years, and they share a common religious heritage in Christianity. Thus Hispanics don’t pose the same threat of not assimilating to Western culture as do the Muslims.
Indeed, to date, Hispanics seem to have assimilated into the American culture of secular individualism more than the reverse. For example, the unwed birth percentage among Hispanics has jumped from 19 percent in 1980 to 48 percent in 2005 and stands well above the percentage for the non-Hispanic White population (25 percent). Hispanics have the same divorce rate as non-Hispanic Whites, and in recent years their rate of non-marital cohabitation has grown faster than that of any other immigrant group.
These trends contradict earlier expectations that Hispanics might bring this nation a new wave of family traditionalism. The prediction of the continued growth of secular individualism within modern cultures rests on some powerful facts. So far in the Western experience, at least, the dominant sociological factors associated with secular individualism are that the higher the educational and income levels of a population, and the more urbanized it is, the greater the degree of secular individualism. Is it likely that any time in the near future educational, income, and urbanization levels in America will drop?
They have been increasing inexorably for three centuries, so a turnaround would most likely occur only in the event of some catastrophe, either natural or man-made. Absent such a catastrophe (which certainly can not be ruled out in today’s world), the most likely future scenario is that secular individualism will increasingly dominate the cultures of the West. The best prospects for cultural change, therefore, rest on the possibility that, at some time in the future, new generations of secular individualists themselves will undergo a change of heart.
One way this might occur is through the growth of new, non-orthodox religious ideologies that remained compatible with secular individualism but take it in new directions. Unfortunately, the new religious strains that have emerged in recent decades, so-called New Age religions, have been profoundly individualistic. None has shown any interest in preserving marriage and family solidarity. Indeed, they seem part and parcel of the secular individualist movement, albeit with a more “spiritual” bent.
The same seems to hold true for today’s rapidly growing “green” movement, which itself shows signs of becoming a new quasi-religion in which the environment has replaced God as a focus of almost divine adoration. So far there is little evidence that “pro-green” translates into “pro-marriage” or “pro-family,” although it is conceivable that somehow the conservation of nature could become translated into the conservation of the family. Any widely accepted “new morality” that might change family behavior would probably have to be compatible with secular individualism’s motivating force—rational self-interest.
The self-interest of today’s young people still includes the desire to have strong intimate relationships and to want to do best by their children. And there is every reason to believe that these interests will continue into the future because they are, in fact, an intrinsic part of being human. The task that lies ahead, then, is to help young people to see the importance of marriage and strong families as the best way to achieve these interests; to help them realize that a better and more meaningful way of life, both for themselves and for their children, involves a commitment to long-term marriage.
What Can be Done? As a first step, the institution of marriage needs to be promoted by all levels of society, particularly the families, the schools, the churches, the non-profit sector, and the government. The great majority of American high school seniors still want to get married, with 82 percent of girls and 70 percent of boys recently saying that “having a good marriage and family life” is “extremely important” to them. These percentages, in fact, represent a slight increase from the late 1970s. 15) But as high schoolers reach young adulthood, when the attraction of cohabitation and careers gains strong currency, making the actual commitment to marriage is not easy. Young people need, therefore, to be made continually aware of the many benefits married life brings, both for themselves and for their children. The empirical evidence is now strong and persuasive that a good marriage enhances personal happiness, economic success, health and longevity. This evidence should become a regular part of our educational programs and our public discourse. Yet successful marriage promotion requires more than empirical evidence.
Marriage has fallen by the wayside, in part, because it receives less and less social recognition and approval. Any norm of behavior requires for its maintenance the continuing support of the community, including active social pressures to uphold it. When social approval and pressures wither, the norm weakens. Today’s young people have been taught through the schools and in their communities a strong message of tolerance for “alternative lifestyles. ” “Thou shalt not make moral judgments about other people’s family behavior” seems to have become a dominant message in our times.
The reason for this is completely understandable; children and young people come from ever more diverse family situations which are not of their own doing, and they should be fully accepted and not be penalized. The problem is that this moral message is carried on into adult life, where it is applied not to children and young people but to adults who do have choices about how they shape their lives. In an effort not to judge much less stigmatize any adult life style, we have all too often become virtually silent about the value and importance of marriage.
This silence is extremely damaging to the promotion of a pro-marriage culture. The widespread promotion of marriage is directed at only half of the problem, however. Getting people to marry is one thing, helping them to stay married is something else entirely. Helping people to stay married is the main focus of an important set of programs known as marriage education. Typically conducted in group settings rather than counseling situations, marriage education programs focus on developing the knowledge, attitudes and skills needed for making a wise marital choice and having a successful marriage.
Although marriage education has been around for many decades, it recently has been thrust into the limelight thanks to widespread publicity and government financial assistance. The importance of marriage education is magnified by the fact that the marital relationship today is so different from what it was in the past. Marriage is now based almost entirely on close friendship and romantic love, mostly stripped of the economic dependencies, legal and religious restrictions, and extended family pressures that have held marriages together for most of human history.
Until fairly recent times marriages had little to do with romantic love, sexual passion, or even close friendship; they were functional partnerships in the intense struggle of life. Today, a successful marriage rests almost entirely on how well one gets along, intimately and for the long term, with someone of the opposite sex. The “relationship knowledge” this requires has never been part of formal education, but there is no reason to believe that it can not effectively be taught to married couples and those about to be married, as well as to younger people as part of the high school curriculum.
Indeed, the initial empirical evaluations of marriage education programs conclude that they are both well-received and have generally positive outcomes. Marriage promotion and marriage education are essential steps, but in order fully to rebuild the institution of marriage there would probably have to be a cultural shift of a more fundamental nature. Modern cultures would need to pull back from the now dominant thrust of secular individualism—the excessive pursuit of personal autonomy, immediate gratification, and short-term personal gain—and give greater emphasis to issues of community and social solidarity.
This could come about through a growing realization, based on rational self-interest, that our personal happiness and sense of well-being over the long course of life are less affected by the amount of independence, choice, bodily pleasure and wealth we are able to obtain than by the number of stable, long-term and meaningful relationships we have with others. (16) And through a greater recognition of the fact that short-term adult interests can be in conflict with the long-term health and wellbeing of children, and that our children’s welfare has everything to do with the future of our nation.
Conclusion America is still the most marrying of Western nations, but nevertheless we are caught up in the prevailing trends of modernity that lead toward an ever-weakening institution of marriage. Marriage rates have been dropping and cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth rates have been rising, thanks in large part to the growing influence of secular individualism in all modern cultures. The negative effects of this are felt most profoundly by our children, who are growing up in family situations that are less and less optimum from a child-development perspective.
As we move in the direction of the weaker family structures of Europe it is important to remember that we lack many of the welfare “safety-nets” found there, and therefore the negative effects of marital decline on children are likely to be heightened in this country. We are not a unified nation in family terms. We have a marriage gap, whereby the college-educated have a stronger marriage culture than the less well-educated. And we have a Red state/Blue state divide, whereby the nation is geographically split up into areas of family traditionalism and non-traditionalism.
Yet these divisions remain peripheral to the overall waning of marriage in America. The rebuilding of a stronger marriage culture is possible. In addition to the heavy promotion of marriage built around the self-interest of today’s young people, it will probably require a cultural shift of some magnitude, one in which stable, predictable, and long-term relationships with others come to be viewed as the best foundation for adult personalities, childrearing, and family life. Footnotes 1. Steven P.
Martin, “Trends in Marital Dissolution by Women’s Education in the United States,” Demographic Research 15-20 (December 2006), 537-560. 2. Jane Lawler Dye, “Fertility of American Women: June 2004. ” Current Population Report, P20-555, Washington, DC: US Census Bureau (2005),Table 7. 3. Reported in Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces,” unpublished manuscript, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania (2007). 4. Unless otherwise indicated, all calculations are by the National Marriage Project from published international data sources. . Lisa Mincieli and Kristin Moore, “The Relationship Context of Births Outside of Marriage: The Rise of Cohabitation,” Child Trends Research Brief 2007-13 (May 2007). 6. Patrick Heuveline, J. M. Timberlake, and F. F. Furstenberg, Jr. , “Shifting Childrearing to Single Mothers: Results from 17 Western Countries,” Population and Development Review 29-1 (March 2003), 47-71. 7. Culture and Media Institute, Alexandria, Virginia (2007). 8. Ron J. Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert, “The Second Demographic Transition in the U. S. : Exception or Textbook Example,” Population and Development Review December 2006), 32-4. 9. Executive Summary, op. cit. 10. Tom Smith, “Generation Gaps in Attitudes and Values from the 1970s to the 1990s,” in R. A. Settersten, Jr. , F. F. Furstenberg, Jr. , and R. C. Rumbaut (eds. ), On the Frontier of Adulthood: Theory, Research, and Public Policy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004). 11. The Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Generation Next,” Washington, DC, 2007. 12. Alasdair Crockett and David Voas, “Generations of Decline: Religious Change in the 20th Century,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (December 2006), 45-4. 3. David Coleman, “Immigration and Ethnic Change in Low-Fertility Countries: A Third Demographic Transition,” Population and Development Review 32-3 (September 2006), 401-446. 14. Philip Martin and Elizabeth Midgely, “Immigration: Shaping and Reshaping America,” Population Bulletin 58-2 (June 2003), p. 22. 15. Data from Monitoring the Future surveys, reported in this second half of this report. 16. For an important statement about this, see John Ashcroft and Phil Caroe, “Thriving Lives: Which Way for Well-Being? ” Relationships Foundation, Cambridge, England (2007).
SOCIAL INDICATORS OF MARITAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING TRENDS OF THE PAST FOUR DECADES Marriage Divorce Unmarried Cohabitation Loss of Child Centeredness Fragile Families with Children Teen Attitudes About Marriage and Family THE RED/BLUE AMERICAN FAMILY DIVIDE The Red State/Blue State divide has become a familiar theme in national politics. In a series of recent presidential elections, the so-called Red states have tended to vote Republican and the Blue states have voted Democratic. The Red states consist of the South (e. g. Alabama), the lower Midwest (e. g.
Oklahoma), and the Mountain Region of the West (e. g. Montana). The Blue states are those of the Northeast (e. g. Massachusetts), the upper Midwest (e. g. Minnesota), and the West Coast (e. g. California). Less well known is the fact that the Red and Blue states also differ significantly in family terms, and this may help to explain their politics. The Red states typically have a more traditional family structure than the Blue States; people in the Red states marry younger and in larger numbers, cohabit outside of marriage less, and have more children.
This is in large part because Red Staters are likely to be more religiously observant and to belong to denominations that profess allegiance to more conservative social values. However, the Red states also have higher divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates than the Blue states, and these rates can hardly be considered indicators of traditionalism, much less religiosity. A closer look at the actual demographic differences among the states can help us to better understand the nature and causes of the Red/Blue American family divide.
Red states have significantly higher marriage rates. The national marriage rate was 41 marriages per 1000 single women in 2005. Some of the highest marriage rates are found in the South, with Arkansas (77) and Alabama (54) leading the pack, and in the Mountain states of Idaho (66), Wyoming (60) and Utah (58). The lowest marriage rates, in contrast, are found in the Northeast with Pennsylvania (24), New Jersey (27), Delaware (28) and Connecticut (28) at the bottom. a) Higher marriage rates are associated with less non-marital cohabitation, and this also clusters geographically along Red/Blue lines. The national rate of unmarried partner households (as percent of all couple households) was 10% in 2005. States in the South and Midwest have the lowest percentages: Alabama (6%), Mississippi (8%), Kansas (8%), and Arkansas (8%). At the opposite pole are the states in the Northeast and Northwest: Vermont (14%), Maine (13%), Oregon (12%) and Washington (12%). (b) Statewide fertility rates follow a similar Red/Blue geographic distribution.
The national fertility rate was 67 births per 1000 women ages 15-44 in 2005, but it was in the 70s in a number of Red states, Idaho (77), Kansas (70), and Georgia (70), and only in the 50s for Vermont (51), Maine (54) and Massachusetts (56). In addition to family traditionalism, the fertility rate in a number of southwestern States is greatly affected by the higher-fertility Hispanic population. (c) Put all together, these demographic characteristics add up to more married couples with children in the Red states and fewer in the Blue states, and this is ne of the biggest reasons for the Red/Blue political divide. Married people with children have tended disproportionately in recent presidential elections to favor the Republican Party. Indeed, for recent elections the correlation between married-with-children and voting Republican is one of the highest ever found between demographic factors and voting behavior. (d) Yet the Red states also, interestingly, have the highest out-of-wedlock birth percentages and divorce rates. While 37% of all births in the U. S. ere out-of-wedlock in 2005, the unwed birth percentages for the Red states of Mississippi (49%) and Louisiana (48%) are far ahead of the Blue states of New Hampshire (27%) and Minnesota (30%) A closer examination, however, shows that this Red/Blue geographic pattern of unwed births is heavily dictated by the racial and ethnic make up of each state, as well as by educational and income levels. States such as Mississippi and Louisiana are at the top partly due to the extremely high unwed birth percentages for Blacks (77%) and Hispanics (50%).
The state with the highest overall unwed birth percentage is New Mexico (51%), owing mainly to the contribution of its large Hispanic population. If one removes Blacks and Hispanics from the equation and looks just at unwed births among Whites, a geographic pattern more influenced by family traditionalism emerges. For the White population only, the unwed birth percentage in Mississippi (26%) is lower than for the White population in New Hampshire (27%). Unwed birth percentages below the national average of 25% for Whites are also found in the Red states of Alabama (21%), North Carolina (23%), and Georgia (23%).
In contrast, above average unwed birth percentages for Whites are found the in secular and cohabitation-high Blue states of Vermont (32%) and Maine (35%) and Oregon (29%). (e) The picture is further complicated, however, by the fact that marriage, cohabitation, and unwed birth rates are so strongly affected by income and educational levels. In general, people with lower incomes and less education tend to marry less, cohabit more, and have more births out-of-wedlock. While professed traditional family values may help to generate fewer unwed births, they do not seem to provide much protection against divorce.
The highest divorce rates are found in the more religiously-based Red states such as Arkansas (25), Oklahoma (25), and West Virginia (23), in striking contrast to more secular Blue states such as Pennsylvania (11), and Massachusetts (11). The national divorce rate was 16 divorces per 1000 married women in 2005. (f) Level of educational achievement is the single factor that probably best explains the geographic distribution of divorce. The lower the educational (and associated income) level, the higher the divorce rate, and educational levels are substantially lower in the Red states than in the Blue states.
The Blue states of the West Coast stand as an exception to this education-based pattern, however, with the divorce rates for highly-educated Oregon and Washington being above the national average (probably California, too, but unfortunately divorce rates for that state are not available). In addition to education, therefore, another important causal factor in divorce may be the level of geographic mobility in a state, making the more recently settled and more transient populations of the West Coast and Mountain states more vulnerable to divorce.
Mobility levels may also help to account for another geographic exception: the long-settled Red states of the Central Plains (e. g. Iowa and North Dakota) have very low divorce rates, comparable to those of the East Coast states. Footnotes: a. Calculations by the National Marriage Project obtained using data from the Current Population Surveys, March 2005 Supplement, as well as Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data for 2005, National Vital Statistics Report 54:20, July 21, 2006, Table 3.
The exceptionally high marriages rates in Nevada and Hawaii are not considered here because so many out-of-staters go to these states to get married. b. Calculations by the National Marriage Project using data downloaded from the American Community Survey, 2005. c. Fertility rates from “Births: Preliminary Data for 2005,” National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 55, No. 11, December 28, 2006. d. Ron J. Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert, “The Second Demographic Transition in the US: Exception or Textbook Example? ,” Population and Development Review 32:4 (December, 2006). e.
Unmarried mother birth data from “Births: Preliminary Data for 2005,” National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 55, No. 11, December 28, 2006. f. Calculations by the National Marriage Project obtained using data from the Current Population Surveys, March 2005 Supplement less population in CA, GA, HI, IN, LA and MN to match unreported divorces in these states. Divorce counts from Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data for 2005, National Vital Statistics Report 54:20, July 21, 2006, Table 3. The highest divorce rate, of course, is found in Nevada (38. ), and not considered here because of the out-of-stater problem. MARRIAGE Key Finding: Marriage trends in recent decades indicate that Americans have become less likely to marry, and the most recent data show that the marriage rate in the United States continues to decline. Of those who do marry, there has been a moderate drop since the 1970s in the percentage of couples who consider their marriages to be “very happy,” but in the past decade this trend has swung in a positive direction. Americans have become less likely to marry.
This is reflected in a decline of nearly 50 percent, from 1970 to 2005, in the annual number of marriages per 1000 unmarried adult women (Figure 1). Much of this decline—it is not clear just how much—results from the delaying of first marriages until older ages: the median age at first marriage went from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 26 and 27, respectively, in 2005. Other factors accounting for the decline are the growth of unmarried cohabitation and a small decrease in the tendency of divorced persons to remarry.
The decline also reflects some increase in lifelong singlehood, though the actual amount can not be known until current young and middle-aged adults pass through the life course. The percentage of adults in the population who are currently married has also diminished. Since 1960, the decline of those married among all persons age 15 and older has been 13 percentage points—and 25 points among black females (Figure 2). It should be noted that these data include both people who have never married and those who have married and then divorced.
In order partially to control for a decline in married adults simply due to delayed first marriages, we have looked at changes in the percentage of persons age 35 through 44 who were married (Figure 3). Since 1960, there has been a drop of 20 percentage points for married men and 18 points for married women. (But the decline has not affected all segments of the population. See the accompanying box: The Marriage Gap. ) Marriage trends in the age range of 35 to 44 are suggestive of lifelong singlehood.
In times past and still today, virtually all persons who were going to marry during their lifetimes had married by age 45. More than 90 percent of women have married eventually in every generation for which records exist, going back to the mid-1800s. By 1960, 94 percent of women then alive had been married at least once by age 45—probably an historical high point. (1) For the generation of 1995, assuming a continuation of then current marriage rates, several demographers projected that 88 percent of women and 82 percent of men would ever marry. 2) If and when these figures are recalculated for the early years of the 21st century, the percentage of women and men ever marrying will almost certainly be lower. It is important to note that the decline in marriage does not mean that people are giving up on living together with a sexual partner. On the contrary, with the incidence of unmarried cohabitation increasing rapidly, marriage is giving ground to unwed unions. Most people now live together before they marry for the first time. An even higher percentage of those divorced who subsequently remarry live together first.
And a growing number of persons, both young and old, are living together with no plans for eventual marriage. There is a common belief that, although a smaller percentage of Americans are now marrying than was the case a few decades ago, those who marry have marriages of higher quality. It seems reasonable that if divorce removes poor marriages from the pool of married couples and cohabitation “trial marriages” deter some bad marriages from forming, the remaining marriages on average should be happier.
The best available evidence on the topic, however, does not support these assumptions. Since 1973, the General Social Survey periodically has asked representative samples of married Americans to rate their marriages as either “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy. “(3) As Figure 4 indicates, the percentage of both men and women saying “very happy” has declined moderately over the past 25 years. (4) This trend, however, is now heading in a positive direction. 1 Andrew J. Cherlin, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992): 10; Michael R.
Haines, “Long-Term Marriage Patterns in the United States from Colonial Times to the Present,” The History of the Family 1-1 (1996): 15-39. 2 Robert Schoen and Nicola Standish, “The Retrenchment of Marriage: Results from Marital Status Life Tables for the United States, 1995. ” Population and Development Review 27-3 (2001): 553-563. 3 Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, this is a nationally representative study of the English-speaking, non-institutionalized population of the United States age 18 and over. Using a different data set that compared marriages in 1980 with marriages in 1992, equated in terms of marital duration, Stacy J. Rogers and Paul Amato found similarly that the 1992 marriages had less marital interaction, more marital conflict, and more marital problems. “Is Marital Quality Declining? The Evidence from Two Generations,” Social Forces 75 (1997): 1089. THE MARRIAGE GAP There is good news and bad news on the marriage front. For the college-educated segment of our population, the institution of marriage appears to have gained strength in recent years.
For everyone else, however, marriage continues to weaken. Thus there is a growing “marriage gap” in America, between those who are well educated and those who are not. Recent data indicates that, for the college educated, the institution of marriage may actually have strengthened. It once was the case that college-educated women married at a lower rate than their less educated peers. Indeed, marriage rates for college-educated women were lower well into the late 20th Century. Since around 1980, however, this situation has reversed. College-educated women are now marrying at a higher rate than their peers. Not only that, but the divorce rate among these women is relatively low and has been dropping. This may be due partly to the fact that college-educated women, once the leaders of the divorce revolution, now hold a more restrictive view of divorce than less well educated women. b The out-of-wedlock childbearing of college-educated women has always been well below that of other segments of the population. Now, among those who delay marriage past age 30, this is the only group becoming more likely to have children after marriage rather than before. c There is more good news.
The marriages of the college educated have become more egalitarian than ever, both in the sense that husbands and wives are matched more equally in their educational and economic backgrounds, and that they hold more egalitarian attitudes about marital gender roles. d As icing on the cake, all of this may add up to greater marital happiness. The percentage of spouses among this group who rate their marriage as “very happy” has held fairly steady over recent decades, whereas for other parts of the population the percentage has dropped significantly. In large numbers, therefore, the college educated part of America is living the American dream—with happy, stable, two-parent families. There is one problem, however, and it is a serious one for the future of the nation. College-educated women aren’t having enough children to replace themselves. In 2004, for example, twenty four percent of women 40 to 44 years old with a bachelor’s degree were childless, compared to only fifteen percent of those without a high school degree. f For the non college-educated population, unfortunately, the marriage situation remains gloomy.
Marriage rates are continuing to decline, and the percentage of out-of-wedlock births is rising. In the year 2000, fully forty percent of high-school drop-out mothers were living without husbands, compared with just twelve percent of college-grad mothers. g Because of the many statistically well-documented benefits of marriage in such areas as income, health, and longevity, this gap is generating a society of greater inequality. America is becoming a nation divided not only by educational and income levels, but by unequal family structures. a Joshua R.
Goldstein and Catherine T. Kenney, “Marriage Delayed or Marriage Foregone? New Cohort Forecasts of First Marriages for U. S. Women,” American Sociological Review 66-4 (2001): 506-519. b Steven P. Martin and Sangeeta Parashar, “Women’s Changing Attitudes Toward Divorce: 1974-2002: Evidence for an Educational Crossover,” Journal of Marriage and Family 68-1 (2006): 29-40. c Steven P. Martin, “Reassessing Delayed and Forgone Marriage in the United States,” unpublished manuscript (2004), Department of Sociology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Robert Schoen and Yen-Hsin Alice Cheng, “Partner Choice and the Differential Retreat from Marriage,” Journal of Marriage Family 68-1 (2006): 1-10; Arland Thornton and Linda Young-DeMarco, “Four Decades of Trends in Attitudes Toward Family Issues in the United States: the 1960s Through the 1990s,” Journal of Marriage and Family 63-4 (2001): 1009-1037. e Calculation by the National Marriage Project of data from The General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. f Jane Lawler Dye, Fertility of American Women: June 2004, Current Population Report, P20-555, Washington, DC: U. S.
Census Bureau (2005): Table 7. g David T. Ellwood and Christopher Jencks, “The Uneven Spread of Single-Parent Families,” in Kathryn M. Neckerman (ed. ) Social Inequality (New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004), 3-77. | | |Figure 1. Number of Marriages per 1,000 Unmarried Women Age 15 and Older, by Year, United States (a) | | |Year |Number | | | |1960 |73. |(b) | | |1970 |76. 5 | | | |1975 |66. 9 | | | |1980 |61. 4 | | | |1985 |56. | | | |1990 |54. 5 | | | |1995 |50. 8 | | | |2000 |46. 5 | | | |2005 |40. | | |a We have used the number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried women age 15 and older, rather than the Crude Marriage Rate of | |marriages per 1,000 population to help avoid the problem of compositional changes in the population, that is, changes which stem| |merely from there being more or less people in the marriageable ages. Even this more refined measure is somewhat susceptible to | |compositional changes. |b Per 1,000 unmarried women age 14 and older. | |Source: U. S. Department of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2001, Page 87, Table 117; and Statistical | |Abstract of the United States, 1986, Page 79, Table 124. Figure for 2004 was obtained using data from the Current Population | |Surveys, March 2004 Supplement, as well as Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data for 2005, National Vital | |Statistics Report 54:20, July 21, 2006, Table 3. http://www. cdc. gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr54/nvsr54_20. pdf) The CPS, March | |Supplement, is based on a sample of the U. S. population, rather than an actual count such as those available from the decennial | |census. See sampling and weighting notes at http://www. bls. census. gov:80/cps/ads/2002/ssampwgt. htm | |Figure 2.
Percentage of All Persons Age 15 and Older Who Were Married, by Sex and Race, 1960-2005 United Statesa | | |Total Males |Black Males |White Males |Total Females |Black Females |White Females | | | | | | | | | |1960 |69. 3 |60. 9 |70. 2 |65. 9 |59. 8 |66. 6 | |1970 |66. 7 |56. 9 |68. |61. 9 |54. 1 |62. 8 | |1980 |63. 2 |48. 8 |65. 0 |58. 9 |44. 6 |60. 7 | |1990 |60. 7 |45. 1 |62. 8 |56. 9 |40. 2 |59. 1 | |2000 |57. 9 |42. 8 |60. 0 |54. 7 |36. 2 |57. 4 | |2006 |56. 3 |40. 9 |58. 5 |53. |34. 3 |56. 3 | |a Includes races other than Black and White. | |b In 2003, the U. S. Census Bureau expanded its racial categories to permit respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than | |one race. This means that racial data computations beginning in 2004 may not be strictly comparable to those of prior years. | |Source: U. S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P20-506; America’s Families and Living Arrangements: March 2000 and| |earlier reports; and data calculated from the Current Population Surveys, March 2006
Supplement. | |Figure 3. Percentage of Persons Age 35 through 44 Who Were Married by Sex, 1960-2005, United States | | | | | | | |Year |Males |Females | | |1960 |88. 0 |87. | | |1970 |89. 3 |86. 9 | | |1980 |84. 2 |81. 4 | | |1990 |74. 1 |73. 0 | | |2000 |69. 0 |71. | | |2006 |67. 9 |69. 5 | |Source: U. S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1961, Page 34, Table 27; Statistical Abstract of | |the United States, 1971, Page 32, Table 38; Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1981, Page 38, Table 49; and U. S. Bureau | |of the Census, General Population Characteristics, 1990, Page 45, Table 34; and Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2001,| |Page 48, Table 51; internet tables (http://www. ensus. gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2005/tabA1-all. pdf) and data calculated | |from the Current Population Surveys, March 2006 Supplement. Figure for 2006 was obtained using data from the Current Population | |Surveys rather than data from the census. The CPS, March Supplement, is based on a sample of the U. S. population, rather than an| |actual count such as those available from the decennial census. See sampling and weighting notes at | |http://www. bls. ensus. gov:80/cps/ads/2002/ssampwgt. htm | |Figure 4. Percentage of Married Persons Age 18 and Older Who Said Their Marriages Were “Very Happy,” by Period, United States | | | | | |Period |Men |Women | |1973-1976 |69. |68. 6 | |1977-1981 |68. 3 |64. 2 | |1982-1986 |62. 9 |61. 7 | |1987-1991 |66. 4 |59. | |1993-1996 |63. 2 |59. 7 | |1998-2004 |64. 4 |60. 4 | |Source: The General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. The trend for| |both men and women is statistically significant (p