When a news outlet heralds the message that “4 in 10 say marriage becoming obsolete,” one can be sure that no one has surveyed the kids.
Today the Pew Research Center, in conjunction with Time Magazine, formally released the results of a poll that, in the words of one Associated Press writer, underscores the existence of “rapidly changing notions of the American family.” It’s an ideological spin on what is in fact a slowly evolving situation that culture shapers and policymakers could and should be doing much more to address.
The core statement about the coming obsolescence of marriage is rooted in Pew’s benchmark finding that only 28 percent of U.S. adults believed marriage was obsolete in 1978, whereas 39 percent hold that belief today. That is indeed a significant increase, but it is incremental—about one-third of a percentage point per year. Interpretations of the Pew report are taking a decidedly ideological view on other topics as well, including the finding that about 29 percent of children under age 18 now live with parents who are divorced or never married. That number is up fivefold from 1960, but it is a long way from making a majority.
Marriage is certainly hurting as an institution, but its reported death, like Mark Twain’s, is an exaggeration, and its revival is certainly an imperative. Marriage can become obsolete only in a society where the needs of children have become passé. That is because marital status is strongly tied to educational achievement and financial success, and the alternatives to raising children in an intact, married household show elevated rates of adversity on so many outcome measurements.
Consider just one: the incidence of abuse and neglect of children by family structure. The latest national incidence report from the Administration on Children and Families found that children living with their married, biological parents had the lowest rates of abuse across all of the categories of maltreatment studied. In fact, the report, released just this year, found that, “compared to children living with married biological parents, those whose single parent had a live-in partner had more than 8 times the rate of maltreatment overall, over 10 times the rate of abuse, and nearly 8 times the rate of neglect.”
Differential outcomes for children hold up across other measurements, including rates of juvenile delinquency, school dropout, having aspirations for and attending college, avoiding early sexual experience and pregnancy, and enjoying marital happiness as adults.
Rather than indulging “Brave New World” euphoria about evolving family styles, culture shapers and policymakers should be doing more to reverse the incremental declines of the past three decades and restore a culture of married families. For example, no action government could take would be more crucial to successfully addressing child poverty than promoting marriage among poor (and, increasingly, underemployed) middle-income Americans. Poignantly, the same reports showing that Americans in these income groups are experiencing less marital success also show that they revere marriage and desire the long-term emotional, economic and personal security it manifestly brings.
Reshaping public policy and encouraging more constructive media messages are hard work. Among the immediate steps that need attention are welfare reforms that address not just one but all 70 of the federal government’s anti-poverty programs, restoration of the Healthy Marriage funding (which was submerged into another stale job-training initiative by the Obama Administration), and the extension of the marriage penalty tax relief that, like half of the child tax credit, is set to expire this coming December 31.
Government has little role in what appears on the nation’s television screens, but the absence of positive depictions of intact, married family life on the airwaves remains a shocking dereliction by the nation’s broadcasters. The hunger exists: Consider the most popular show today on The Learning Channel—its series on the Duggar family of Tontitown, Arkansas. The Duggars and their 19 children have a fascinated and devoted following. Their joy and togetherness are captivating to millions of viewers. But in this case 19 are not enough—one television program is not enough.
Nearly 70 percent of children are still being raised by the married parents who conceived them, but very little of their real experience is shown on commercial broadcasting. Given this fact, it’s a sign of the family’s durability and resilience that the number of children being raised in intact households remains as high it is—despite an array of cultural and welfare-triggered assaults.
It will take more than another bleak assessment of the nation’s families, abetted by a spin-doctoring media machine, to bring down this cornerstone of civil society. But it will also take much more than we are doing now to restore the married family to its full health and promise.