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October 7, 2009
Column #1,467
"The Marriage Index"
By Mike McManus

"What helps us the most to thrive, as individuals and as a society?  Money or marriage? Assets or relationships?"

These provocative questions are the opening words of an important new report, "The Marriage Index," by the Institute for American Values and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting.

It argues that the status of our marriages influences our well-being at least as much as our finances.  Yet we regularly note America's leading economic indicators, such as unemployment - and have no comparable marriage indicators, measuring America's marital health.

The first marriage indicators that come to my mind - the divorce rate and marriage rate - are not the yardsticks proposed by the report, perhaps for good reason. Divorces tripled in just 19 years, from 1960 to 1979, but have fallen 30% since.  That may give a false sense of progress, since America's divorce rate is still 2-6 times that of Canada or Europe.

       The report proposes five yardsticks which are less obvious but thoughtful:

       1. Percentage of Married Adults (aged 20-54):  On one hand, 59 percent of women under 24 have already cohabited! In fact, three-fourths were either married, a single parent or had cohabited. Yet a new study by Dr. Norval Glenn of the University of Texas reports that adults who married between 22 and 25 report the happiest marriages! Thus, contrary to conventional wisdom, nothing is gained by postponing marriage to a later age.

       How strong is marriage according to this yardstick? Millions consider marriage "less attractive."  In 1970, 78.6 percent of adults were married, but by 2008 only 57.2 percent.   

Divorce is part of the reason for this drop, but a bigger factor is cohabitation, which has soared 16-fold from 439,000 in 1960 to 6.8 million last year. Many cohabitants have children who grow up outside of marriage, and are least likely to succeed.

2.  Percentage of Married Persons who are "Very Happy:" Couples who are happy raise children who fare better on every measure of child well-being.  Marital quality matters, not only for adults but for their children.

       With more couples getting divorced, are the remaining marriages happier now than in the past? Sadly, no. There's been a modest decline from 67 percent who were happy in 1970, to 62 percent in 2008.

       3.  Percentage of Intact First Marriages:  What percentage of couples experience the ideal of marriage for life?  Due to rising divorce rates, the percentage dropped from 77.4 percent in 1970 to 59.9 percent by 2000.  However, it rose to 61.2 percent by 2008, a tiny ray of hope.

       4.  Percentage of Births to Married Parents: In 1970, nine out of ten children were born to married parents, but that figure has plunged to only 60.3 percent.  No measure of marital health has deteriorated so precipitously.

       Out-of-wedlock children exhibit behavioral problems as young as age 3. Half of those born to cohabiting parents will experience a dissolved parental union by age five, compared to only 15 percent of those born to a married couple.

       5.  Percentage of Children Living with Own Married Parents: Many studies report that children raised by their own married parents will fare best. Children of divorce have weaker relationship with their fathers. Children of one-parent families are three times more likely to be expelled from school or to become pregnant as teenagers.

       What about those who have two parents, but one is a stepparent? The report says children in stepfamilies appear more like children of single parents than those raised by their own married parents.

       The report concludes with 101 excellent suggestions on what could be done to improve The Marriage Index, such as reforming divorce laws to require a "one or two-year waiting period for unilateral divorce," or making "mutual consent the basis for divorce in long-term marriages and marriages with children."

       It suggests "organizing religious congregations into Community Marriage Policies" which was gratifying since my wife and I have helped 10,000 clergy create 227 CMPs.

       No strategy can do more to reverse negative trends. On average, Community Marriage Policies reduce divorce rates 17.5 percent in seven years. Cohabitation rates also fall by a third in CMP cities compared to carefully matched communities without this initiative. Furthermore, cities such as Evansville, IN report a 16 percent increase in marriage rates.

       In Modesto, CA, the first city with a CMP in 1986, divorce rates in this decade have been half of what they were, and marriages have doubled. The result? Teen births are down 30 percent and dropouts fell by a fifth.

       The Marriage Index offers an important yardstick to measure the health of marriage - the foundation of a healthy culture.
 

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