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January 31, 2013
Column #1,640
"The State of Our Unions: 2012"
(first of a two-part series)
By Mike McManus

“As recently as the 1980s, only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers were born outside of marriage. By the late 2000s, this figure rose to a striking 44 percent,” asserts the new annual report, “The State of Our Unions: 2012.”

“The disappearance of marriage in Middle America is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in some communities, a change that strikes at the heart of the American Dream.”

Yet what we are hearing “even from political and social leaders who think marriage is important is silence, tentativeness, or worse, despair. Even those who believe marriage matters seem to think that nothing can be done.”

Fortunately the authors – W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Marquardt, who co-direct The National Marriage Project” – “beg to differ.” In fact, they developed 10 recommendations which they boldly call “The President’s Marriage Agenda.”

“We invite our president and our nation’s leaders to confront the challenge facing marriage in Middle America,” which they define as the nearly 60 percent of Americans aged 25 to 60 who have a high school, but not a four year college degree, for whom “Marriage is rapidly slipping away.”

Some data on the scale of the problem: Among women under age 30, an alarming 53% of all births “occur outside of marriage.” College-educated women have only a 6% unwed birth rate. But for high school graduates it’s 44% – close to 54% for high school dropouts, “with all the attendant problems of economic stress, partner conflict, single parenting and troubled children,” writes Wilcox.

“Why should we care? Marriage is not merely a private arrangement; it is also a complex social institution. Marriage helps to unite the needs and desires of couples and the children they produce,” which is the best environment for “children to thrive.” It is also helps adults to succeed and to weather the bad times.

The disappearance of marriage is what lies behind the drop of middle-income households from 61 percent in 1971 to only 51 percent now. During those years, the percentage of middle-income households headed by married couples dropped “dramatically from 74 to 55 percent.”

The report documents “most children born outside of marriage are born to cohabiting couples,” who are much more likely to break up than married couples. While two out of three couples who marry are cohabiting, of the 7.6 million who were living together in 2011, only 1.5 million married.

Therefore, the report, asks the President “as a cultural leader who can inspire citizens, especially young people” to address marriage restoration. How?

First. “End Marriage Penalties.” Low income people who choose to marry can lose up to 20% of their income, such as Medicaid and food stamps. For example, the report suggest giving low-income couples tax credits for the exact amount of their marriage penalty, measured by a “Marriage Calculator” at the Urban Institute.

Second, “Help Young Men Become Marriageable Men.” Offer apprenticeships so young men can gain work experience and credentials. Teach marriage skills to those in the military and those coming out of prison.

Third, “End Anonymous Fatherhood.” If a woman is pregnant from a one-night stand, the father will pay child support. But if she has a sperm donor, he gets off with no obligations. Britain and Sweden have banned anonymity in sperm donors. We should too.

Fourth, “Enact the Second Chances Act to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce,” advocated by UMN Professor William Doherty to extend the waiting period for divorce to a year (while 25 states have zero waiting). Require couples with children to take a course on the impact of divorce on kids before filing, plus education about the option of reconciliation that 40% desire.

Fifth, “Encourage state and federal government to invest in and evaluate marriage and relationship education programs.” The Bush Administration provided $100 million a year for Healthy Marriage Initiatives, renewed in 2011 at $75 million. The report urges 1% or 2% of welfare funds to help at-risk couples to “form and sustain healthy marriages and relationships.” That is reasonable, though initial results are mixed and small.

Sixth, “Engage Hollywood,” urges Obama to launch “a conversation with Hollywood “about marriage and family formation, including constructive critiques and positive ideas for change in media depictions of marriage and fatherhood.” Wilcox says, “Hollywood has a much bigger influence on contemporary families than any public initiative.”

Pat Fagan of the Family Research Council, admires the report, but says “All the government can give is money and justice. it can’t generate love between human beings. The place to go for that is churches and they are failing.”

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