There’s a crisis in marriage equality in this country. And it has nothing to do with sexual orientation.
That’s one major finding of the newest State of Our Unions report, published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values’ Center for Marriage and Families. Released this week, the 2012 report spotlights the segment of America where marriage is drying up: the middle class.
Once the icon of solid marriages and two-parent families, the middle class is starting to resemble the poor’s relationship patterns: cohabitation, serial partnerships, divorce, and single parenting aided by welfare. Meanwhile, marriage is “becoming the preserve of the well-educated,” note the report’s authors (Elizabeth Marquardt, David Blankenhorn, Robert I. Lerman, Linda Malone-Colón, and W. Bradford Wilcox). And this, they assert, signals nothing less than “the social challenge for our times.”
Middle America, which composes 60 percent of the U.S. population, is defined as citizens between ages 25 to 60 with a high school but not a college education. In the 1980s, only 13 percent of children in this population were born out of wedlock. By the end of the 2000s, that number rose to 44 percent—nearly half. Many of today’s middle-class children are born to cohabitating couples or to parents who regularly switch partners. Research indicates that these children face more economic instability, see more partner conflict, and are more likely to be abused than children in married or single-parent families. And they are more likely to repeat their parents’ behaviors, barring from them the economic and relational stability crucial to a healthy person and, indeed, a healthy society.
To promote strong marriages, give children a better start—and also, consequently, cut taxpayer costs—the report’s authors present to President Obama and other top policymakers 10 directives. Ranging from “triple the tax credit for children under age 3” to “help young men become marriageable” to “engage Hollywood,” the list addresses marriage from many important angles: economic, social, and attitudinal. But one angle conspicuously absent is religious. What’s the role of communities of faith in strengthening marriage?
At it turns out, Middle America’s marriage crisis overlaps with its religious crisis. As Wilcox notes in his forthcoming study “No Money, No Honey, No Church” and in his 2010 State of Our Unions, fewer white working-class Americans participate in church life than they did even 20 years ago—a striking reality given how churches have historically provided solidarity for the working class. According to the General Social Survey, level of church attendance decreased among all three educational groups from the 1980s to the 2000s, but the middle class showed the greatest decline. And because religious institutions so strongly perpetuate a “familistic” way of life—as well as give to members social support and civic skills—the dearth of religious activity also means fewer marriages and more economic strife.
What does this all mean for religious institutions? I believe they can do more to engage middle-class Americans in both pastoral and practical ways, which in turn will lay better foundations for marriage among middle-class attendees. Local church leaders might ask:
- Is our teaching accessible to attendees without a college degree?
- Are our pews filled with people from the same tax bracket, or do we strive for economic diversity?
- Are we encouraging cohabitating couples, especially those with children, toward marriage (at the appropriate time and in sensitive ways)?
- Are we providing job training and/or childcare, or partnering with nonprofit or government agencies that do, in order to ensure greater economic stability for middle-class couples?
- Do we teach the goodness and benefits of marriage, for individuals as well as society?
The list could go on. Certainly churches can’t alone turn the tide on Middle America’s marriage crisis; they, for example, can’t offer economic incentives in the form of tax credits or make anonymous fatherhood via sperm donation illegal (another of the 10 directives). The state plays a crucial (if at times bloated) role in shoring up marriage, as we see among many successful state-level marriage projects. But the state can’t do it alone. And with an institution like marriage, so laden with spiritual meaning and history, the church can’t excuse itself from the conversation. Church-state separation is wise and good for many public issues, but marriage may be one where church and state enjoy a happy union after all.