Middle America gives up on marriage?

Many readers sent in Ross Douthat's column in this past Sunday's New York Times. It was a fascinating piece that centered around this news:

This week, the National Marriage Project is releasing a study charting the decline of the two-parent family among what it calls the "moderately educated middle" -- the 58 percent of Americans with high school diplomas and often some college education, but no four-year degree.

This decline is depressing, but it isn't surprising. We've known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.

But the Marriage Project's data suggest that this paradox is fading. It's no longer clear that middle America does hold more conservative views on marriage and family, or that educated Americans are still more likely to be secular and socially liberal.

There's much more in the column, and I was prepared to write a "Got News?" post about it. But some mainstream outlets did take an interest in the study and have begun writing up their versions, too. The Christian Science Monitor had an interesting piece and summarized some of the key findings this way:

* The chance that moderately educated Americans will have children outside of marriage has increased dramatically in the past few decades relative to other populations. In the early 1980s, just 2 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers (those with a college degree) were born outside of marriage, compared with 13 percent of those born to moderately educated mothers and 33 percent of those born to mothers who were high school dropouts. By the late 2000s, those numbers have shifted to 6 percent for highly educated mothers, 44 percent for moderately educated mothers, and 54 percent of babies born to the least educated. * The cultural foundations of marriage - including religious attendance and faith in marriage as a way of life - now seem to be stronger among the highly educated than the moderately educated. * At the same time that divorce rates have fallen for the least-educated and most highly educated Americans, they have risen slightly for the moderately educated.

This section was interesting:

[Dr. Andrew Cherlin} and Dr. [Bradford] Wilcox say that the trends are troubling not because of some puritanical value on marriage, but because of the clear links between strong marriage and happiness, economic prosperity, and children's well-being.

"Their health, wealth, and happiness are all increased when women, and especially men, stay married," says Wilcox, who notes that children are also much more likely to thrive when their parents stay married.

Moreover, Dr. Cherlin notes that about half of all nonmarriage cohabiting unions - including those with children - break up within five years. "You could argue that there's nothing wrong with living together," he says. "But if it makes the family lives of children more unstable, then that's a concern."

Oh I am so glad that these results have nothing to do with puritanical views on marriage. We all know that religious adherents only believe in marriage because they're mindless drones who don't even consider how it affects the various parties, am I right? It's not like the Bible presents marriage as important for children's well being, spousal happiness and economic security.

Still, the Monitor piece is very interesting and gets perspectives from various people. The report's authors seem to think the breakdown in marriage is related to the economy. They quote another sociologist who think it might have to do with the sexual revolution and unrealistic expectations.

The Washington Times report focused on the faith gap revealed in the marriage report. College graduates are more likely to worship weekly than those with moderate education. It quoted the report's author saying that if these trends continue, marriage and its socioeconomic successes, happiness and stability will be something enjoyed only by the highly educated.

There are so many more interesting angles to explore. What does this data mean for houses of worship? How are local congregations dealing with the institutional decline of marriage? How can congregations most help their communities as families struggle around them? What other stories are the mainstream media missing while they devote so many pages and stories to encouraging changes in marriage laws to include same-sex partners?

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