While Americans mull over the passage of a gay marriage law in New York, the decline of the American family and the institution of marriage among heterosexuals—especially less-educated ones—continues, as chronicled in this recent Weekly Standard article by Mitch Pearlstein. Here are a few of the most interesting statistics found there:
The sheer numbers are staggering. In round terms, about 40 percent of all births in the United States are out of wedlock. That figure for the entire population conceals wide variation: Thirty percent of white children, 50 percent of Hispanic children, and 70 percent of African-American children are born to unmarried parents.
Those stark and terrible numbers describe not only the decline of marriage as a way (actually, the way) to raise children, but one full of economic consequences. The article points out that it has raised the amount of money we pay out in various forms of assistance and has widened the gap between the poorer and richer segments of society. The social and psychological consequences are no less dire.
There are some lacunae in the trend. One of them involves women with four-year college degrees; their rates of out-of-wedlock births still remain quite low, although they have risen:
In the early 1980s, only 2 percent of births to mothers with four-year college degrees were outside of marriage. For moderately educated mothers the figure was 13 percent, and for mothers who didn’t finish high school it was 33 percent. The recent figures on out-of-wedlock births for these three educational groups are much higher: 6 percent, 44 percent, and 54 percent respectively.
I am actually surprised that the figure among college graduates remains this low. Nevertheless, the statistics in general are sobering, and it’s difficult to believe that, once the marriage system is broken, it will ever be put back together again.
Pearlstein advocates training young men to counter the effects of father absence:
Aimless or felonious men are not the only reason for the decline of marriage, but they are a sizable one.
Many of these young men grew up without their fathers and suffered what some call “father wounds.” Would it not make sense for such boys to attend schools properly described as “paternalistic”? These would be tough-loving places, like the celebrated (but still too few) KIPP Academies, with their Knowledge Is Power Program. Would it not also make sense to allow many more boys and girls to attend religious and other private schools, which have their “biggest impact,” according to Harvard’s Paul Peterson, by keeping minority kids in “an educational environment that sustains them through graduation”?
I think that’s a drop in the bucket. The marriage decline (which exists in many European countries that do not have large numbers of “aimless or felonious men”) is in large measure, IMHO, a result of the fact that we have simultaneously removed many of the social (although not the economic) costs of illegitimacy, and decreased the incentives to marry.
Why do people get married these days? The strength of the drive to procreate, to be able to have sex with a regular partner, to avoid the disapproval of peers and of society as a whole, and to meet with favor from organized religion (not to mention fear of dads with shotguns) used to all act as strong drivers to lead men and women to marriage. For most young people in this country, and for society as a whole, these motivations have been tremendously weakened.
[NOTE: Here’s one of my earlier ruminations on related topics, including Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown.]