The Changing Importance of Marriage and Cultural Dysfunction
The breakdown of marriage and its connection to childbearing in American culture is now a given: In 1980, about 18% of births were to unmarried women; by 2009, it was 41%. Among whites, the increase was from 11% to 36%; among African Americans, from 56% to 72%; among Hispanics, from 37% (in 1990) to 53%. Consider, as well, the share of children living with two parents. Since 1970, it has dropped from 82% to 63%. Among whites, the decline is from 87% to 73%; among African Americans, from 57% to 31%; among Hispanics, from 78% to 57%. The causes of all this dysfunction are complex, but Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute in his book,Coming Apart, argues that having children out of wedlock is now more common and acceptable partially because the sexual revolution permitted men to get sex without marriage. In addition, the waning influence of religious-based ethical standards has undermined the importance of the family. Further, feminism and expanded welfare dependency have both made it easier for women to survive on their own. Finally, liberalized divorce laws naturally increased the divorce rate, usually leaving women to raise the children. Few would argue that these various trends are positive; in fact, a very strong case could be made that American culture is in crisis because of these trends.
What do we know about this significant growth of unmarried moms? From a recently published article by Kay Hymowitz, W. Bradford Wilcox and Kelleen Kaye, we know these facts:
- By the time they turn 30, about two-thirds of American women have had their first child, usually outside of marriage. They write: “Indeed, 20-somethings are driving America’s all-time high level of nonmarital childbearing, which is now at 41% of all births, according to vital-statistics data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Sixty percent of those births are to women in their 20s, while teens account for one-fifth of nonmarital births. Between 1990 and 2008, the teen pregnancy rate has dropped by 42%, while the rate of nonmarital childbearing among 20-something women has risen by 27%.”
- The shift of unmarried parenthood from teens to 20-somethings is in part an unexpected consequence of delaying marriage. Over four decades, the marriage age has risen steadily to a new high of nearly 27 for women and 29 for men.
- Delayed marriage does, to some extent, seem to be related to the struggles of today’s working and lower middle class young adults. They delay marriage, but not childbearing. Indeed, 58% of first births among this group are now to unmarried women. However, among college graduates, only 12% of first births are outside marriage.
- Many unmarried mothers in their 20s are living with their baby’s father when they give birth. But about two-fifths of those couples break up before their child’s first birthday; that is three times the rate for married couples of their age. The writers also have discovered that “these parents often go on to have another child (or children), with another partner (or partners), creating a family maze of step parents, siblings, grandparents and homes. As a great deal of research has shown, such instability is one of the greatest risks to children’s well-being. It greatly increases the likelihood that they will experience academic, social and emotional problems like poor grades, drug abuse and (perpetuating the cycle) unmarried childbearing.”
Within American culture, marriage was once the foundation stone of “adult identity, finances and family.” No longer. Research by Hymowitz and her colleagues shows that “children born to stable, married parents are more likely to graduate from high school and from college, well-equipped to thrive in a knowledge economy, and, in turn, more likely to marry and start their own families on a stable footing. The converse is true for children from homes marked by instability. Without a stable family, their chances of moving up the education and income ladder are stunted, which—in turn—reduces their odds of getting married as adults.”
The importance of marriage is also changing in American culture. According to the Pew Research Center, marriage is important today for different reasons. For Christians, marriage is the most important institution God created. It is a complementary union between a man and a woman for life. It is also the means for procreation and the raising and nurturing of children. It is the foundation stone for human civilization. For post-World War II Americans, marriage was nothing particularly unusual. It was respectable and was the only acceptable and decent way to share a home with a partner. Hence, shame accompanied children born out of wedlock. But this is no longer the norm. In a recent summary of some of the Pew research, Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University writes, “Today, marriage is more discretionary than ever, and also more distinctive. It is something young adults do after they and their live-in partners have good jobs and a nice apartment. It has become the capstone experience—the last brick put in place after everything else is set. People marry to show their family and friends how well their lives are going, even if deep down they are unsure whether their partnership will last a lifetime.”
Further, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage, young adults without college degrees are increasingly likely to put off marriage and have their children in cohabiting relationships, sometimes years before they marry. There is thus a weakening linkage between marriage and childbearing in America. Cherlin writes: “In a cultural climate in which having children outside of marriage is increasingly acceptable, non-college educated young adults seem to treat reproduction as mandatory or at least axiomatic, and marriage as more of an optional add-on. Most do eventually marry, although not necessarily to the person they had their first child with.” In contrast, college-educated women wait until they are married to have children. They will more than likely cohabit with a partner, or even several during their 20s, but late in their 20s, after graduate school is finished, they get married and begin to have children. Marriage, if it occurs, is the last thing young adults do, not as the beginning of adulthood, as it was for generations, but rather as the capstone act of becoming an adult.
Marriage as an institution is no longer logically connected to childbearing in America, especially for those without a college education. Yet, even for those who earn a college degree, cohabitation before marriage, if marriage occurs at all, is the new normal. If women with children marry, they usually do not marry the father of their first child. Hymowitz and her research group have demonstrated the terrible consequences of this dysfunction on children. There is nothing really positive about this new normal for the children these complex social relationships produce. God declared at creation that marriage is His foundational institution. As Jesus said in Matthew 19:4, “from the beginning He created them male and female,” and intended for them to marry, love each other in a “one-flesh” relationship, and have children. Indeed, He performed the first marriage and declared it His “norm.” It is the Creation Ordinance standard for all time and all cultures. Those who willfully reject this Ordinance will suffer the consequences of that rejection: Witness 21st century America.
See Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post (14 April 2103); Kay Hymowitz, W. Bradford Wilcox and Kelleen Kaye in the Wall Street Journal (15 March 2103); and Andrew J. Cherlin in the New York Times Sunday “Review” (28 April 2013).