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New Report Finds Marriage Trouble in Middle America

Written by Featured Organization on 10 December 2010.

devorceDrawing on the latest national data, a new report concludes that marriage is in trouble among so-called "Middle Americans," defined as the 58 percent of adults who have a high school diploma and possibly some post-secondary education, but no four-year college degree.

The 2010 edition of the State of Our Unions report was released today by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

New data indicate that trends in non-marital childbearing, divorce and marital quality in Middle America increasingly resemble those of the poor, many of whose marriages are fragile. However, among the highly educated and affluent, marriage is stable and appears to be getting even stronger - yet more evidence of America's "marriage gap."

The report is the first to address the causes of the observed retreat from marriage in Middle America. It finds that shifts in marriage attitudes, increases in unemployment and declines in religious attendance are among the trends driving the retreat.

In a striking reversal of historic trends, highly educated Americans are embracing a pro-marriage mindset even as Middle Americans are losing faith in marriage.

The report finds:

• Moderately educated Americans have become dramatically more likely than highly educated Americans (the 30 percent of adults with a four-year college degree) to have children outside of marriage. In the early '80s, 13 percent of babies of moderately educated mothers and 33 percent of babies of least-educated mothers were born outside of marriage, while 2 percent were born to highly educated mothers. By the late 2000s, the out-of-wedlock birth rate for moderately educated mothers had soared to 44 percent. It rose to 54 percent for the least educated mothers and went up slightly to 6 percent for highly educated mothers.

• In a historic reversal, the cultural foundations of strong marriages - adherence to a "marriage mindset," religious attendance and faith in marriage as a way of life - are stronger now among the highly educated than among the moderately educated. For example, teenagers from highly educated homes are more likely to report that they would be embarrassed by a pregnancy (76 percent) than their peers from moderately educated homes (61 percent). Highly educated Americans are also now more likely to attend church on a weekly basis (34 percent) than moderately educated Americans (28 percent); in the 1970s, highly educated Americans were less likely to attend church than the moderately educated.

• Divorce rates are up for moderately educated Americans, relative to those who are highly educated. From the 1970s to the 1990s, divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage became less likely for the highly educated (15 percent down to 11 percent), slightly more likely for the moderately educated (36 up to 37 percent), and less likely for the least educated (46 down to 36 percent).

In an era when jobs and the economy are the overriding concerns, why should the nation care about the marriages of Middle Americans?

The author of this year's lead essay, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox of U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, said, "Marriage plays a central role in securing the American Dream for countless Americans. Adults and children fortunate enough to live in an intact, married family are much more likely to succeed in school and the workplace, to acquire a home of their own, and to experience upward mobility.

"The retreat from marriage in Middle America means that all too many Americans will not be able to realize the American Dream."

Wilcox said it's striking that the cultural and economic foundations of marriage appear to be growing stronger among the educated and the affluent, even as they deteriorate among Middle Americans.

"While many highly educated Americans have progressive views on social issues in general, when it comes to their own lives, they are increasingly adopting a marriage mindset and acting accordingly," he said.

The growing "marriage gap" between highly educated and moderately educated Americans should be of concern to all Americans, he said.

"The vast majority of American adults aspire to marriage, and children are much more likely to thrive if they are raised in a married home with their own mother and father," Wilcox said. "Unfortunately, marriage has now fallen out of reach for millions of adults and children in Middle America."

The complete 2010 State of Our Unions report, "When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America," is available for download at http://stateofourunions.org/.

About the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia

The National Marriage Project is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian and interdisciplinary initiative located at the University of Virginia. The project provides research and analysis on the health of marriage in America, including the annual "State of Our Unions" report. The National Marriage Project, which was founded at Rutgers University in 1997 by Drs. David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, moved to U.Va. in the fall of 2009 and is now directed by W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences.

About the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values

Directed by Elizabeth Marquardt, the mission of the Center for Marriage and Families is to increase the proportion of U.S. children growing up with their two married parents. At the center's website, FamilyScholars.org, bloggers include emerging voices and senior scholars with distinctive expertise and points of view tackling today's key debates on the family. The New York-based Institute for American Values is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to strengthening families and civil society in the U.S. and the world.

The "When Marriage Disappears" issue of The State of Our Unions is part of the "Nest and Nest-Egg Initiative," a multi-year inquiry, supported by The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, into the prudential values and institutions that are essential to sustaining a secure and thriving American middle class.

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