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Marriage Breakdown: Expensive and Divisive

Report Shows Big Downside to Family Disintegration


By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, SEPT. 11, 2007 (Zenit) - Marriage continues to decline in the United States, bringing with it numerous adverse consequences for individuals, and society in general. This is one of the main conclusions of a recent study.

The National Marriage Report released its annual publication "The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America 2007" this summer. The center is based at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

The authors of the study are two academics well-known for their writings on family and marriage issues: David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. They found that from 1970 to 2005 there was a decline of nearly 50% in the annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult women.

A significant proportion of this drop was simply due to delaying marriage until an older age. Nevertheless, more people simply don't marry or are unmarried, due to cohabitation and a decrease in the numbers of divorced people to remarry.

The report cites estimates that about a quarter of unmarried women 25-39 are currently living with a partner, and an additional quarter have lived with a partner at some time in the past. As well, over half of all first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared with virtually none 50 years ago.

Cohabitation is more common among those of lower educational and income levels, as well as those who are less religious than their peers.

Myths

The report also rebuts a couple of myths often used by anti-family forces. The first myth is that living together before marriage is useful in order to find out whether the couple can get along, thereby avoiding a bad marriage and an eventual divorce. This is not borne out by the facts, the report observes.

"In fact, a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage," the report comments.

The report admits that there are diverse opinions over how the data can be interpreted, but at a minimum the authors conclude: "What can be said for certain is that no evidence has yet been found that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not."

The second myth refuted by the report is the affirmation that even though fewer are marrying, those who marry have higher quality marriages. Not so, reply Popenoe and Whitehead, noting that "the best available evidence on the topic" shows a decline over the last 25 years in the number of both men and women who affirm their marriages are "very happy."

Education's role

The report also reveals a growing social divide when it comes to marriage. Among those who have received a university education the institution of marriage has strengthened in the last couple of decades. College-educated women now marry at a higher rate compared with the rest of the population, and they are also less favorably inclined toward divorce than less educated women.

In addition, among those who delay marriage past age 30, college-educated women are the only ones more likely to have children after marriage rather than before.

There is, thus, a growing "marriage gap" in America, notes the report, between those who are well educated and those who are not.

In fact, for those without a university education, "the marriage situation remains gloomy," according to the report. This is due to a combination of a continuing decline in marriage rates and a growing percentage of out-of-wedlock births. By the year 2000, fully 40% of high school drop-out mothers were living without husbands, compared with just 12% of college-graduate mothers, states the report.

Since hitting a high point in the early 1980s, divorce has moderately declined. Overall, the lifetime probability of a first marriage ending in divorce or separation remains between 40% and 50%. The risk of divorce, however, varies quite notably. The chances of divorce are much higher for those who are poor, people who are high-school drop outs, and couples who marry as teenagers. Couples who have a family background of divorce, as well as those who have no religious affiliation, are also more likely to divorce.

Bottom line

In addition to the personal consequences, the breakdown in marriage and family life over the last few decades has had a severe economic impact. A section of the report looks at the economic benefits of marriage for society.

"Married couples create more economic assets on average than do otherwise similar singles or cohabiting couples," argues the report. Married couples live more frugally, as opposed to two adults living as singles, and they also save and invest more for the future. Men also tend to become more economically productive after marriage, earning between 10% and 40% more than do single men with similar education and job histories.

The increase in divorce has also resulted in more inequality and poverty. The report points out that a large body of research has shown that both divorce and unmarried childbearing increase child poverty. One study even went so far as to show that if family structure had not changed between 1960 and 1998, the black child poverty rate in 1998 would have been 28.4% rather than 45.6%, and the white child poverty rate would have been 11.4% rather than 15.4%.

Divorce also means higher costs for governments, due to such factors as welfare payments and increased juvenile delinquency. The nation's 1.4 million divorces in 2002 are estimated to have cost taxpayers more than $30 billion, the report affirms.

The increase in single-parent families also imposes a high cost on children. By 2006 some 28% of American children lived with just one 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," commented Popenoe in his introductory essay to the report.

Reversing trends

Popenoe also asks how the breakdown in marriage and the family could be repaired. One way to do this is through a cultural transformation led by religion. With the passing of years, Popenoe continues, the United States and other countries have become ever more secular and individualistic. This is particularly the case among young people.

Strengthening religion and the family is one of Benedict XVI's common themes. The family is a priority of the new evangelization, he declared July 5 to a group of bishops from the Dominican Republic present in Rome for their five-yearly visit.

The Pontiff said, "The Church desires that the family truly be the place where the person is born, matures and is educated for life, and where parents, by loving their children tenderly, prepare them for healthy interpersonal relationships which embody moral and human values in the midst of a society so heavily marked by hedonism and religious indifference."

More recently, when responding to questions Sept. 1 posed by the youth gathered for an encounter with the Pope in Loreto, Italy, Benedict XVI stated that the marginalization affecting so many people today in part is due to the fragmentation of families.

The family, he pointed out, "should not only be a place where generations meet, but also where they learn to live, learn the essential virtues, and this is in danger." We need to make sure the family survives and is once more at the center of society, the Pope urged. A task more urgent than ever in the light of current trends.

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