Welcome to State of Our Unions 2012 Online Symposium

Amy ZiettlowAmy Ziettlow is host of FamilyScholars Conversations and edits the FamilyScholars Symposium Series. She is co-investigator of a study on caregiving and grief funded by the Lilly Endowment and co-author of the forthcoming The Gen X Caregiver.

As Editor of the new FamilyScholars Symposium Series, I am delighted to invite you to enjoy and participate in our first ever Family Scholars Symposium.

Beginning today and continuing through Friday, we will be highlighting the expert analysis of 14 scholars and opinion leaders from across the country as they respond to the recently released report titled “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” featured in this year’s issue of State of Our Unions, a journal published by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

A quick note about reading and commenting: All of the essays are listed in this welcome post. Feel free to scroll down this page to read them all, comment on each one individually, or comment on them as a whole in the comment section of this welcome post. Clicking on each author’s title will also direct you to a page for that essay on its own and you can comment on the individual piece there as well.

Each writer brings a unique perspective that builds on elements of the report’s argument and recommendations, pinpoints gaps, critiques all or part of the report’s thesis, or makes suggestions for further study. Check in here throughout the two days and follow us on Twitter (@FamScholars or me @RevAmyZ or Elizabeth Marquardt @newmetaphor70) for live-tweeting throughout the two days.

We welcome rigorous, critical engagement in a context of civility.

Welcome to the conversation.

Can the President Have a Marriage Agenda without Talking about What Marriage Is?
Ryan Anderson, Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation and Editor of Public Discourse

Why Middle-Class Marriages Need the Church
Katelyn Beaty, Managing Editor of Christianity Today

Marriage Success: The Value of Apprenticeships and Education
Kevin Bullard, Co-founder of MarriageWorks!

Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?
Naomi Cahn, Professor of Law at George Washington University

Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?
June Carbone, Professor of Law at University of Missouri–Kansas City

Sometimes a Great Notion: Panning for Gold in The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent
John Culhane, Professor of Law at Widener University

What Are the Program and Policy Implications of Cohabitation?
Robert Hughes, Jr., Professor and Head of Human and Community Development at the Univeristy of Illinois

Marriage Shores Up Hispanic Families
Alicia La Hoz, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Founder and Executive Director of Family Bridges

Marriage Reports Preach to the Choir?
Kevin Noble Maillard, Professor of Law at Syracuse University

Putting the “Other” Marriage Equality Problem on the Agenda
Linda McClain, Professor of Law at Boston University

A Wrap on a New Hollywood Rap
Mitch Pearlstein, Founder and President of Center of the American Experiment

Restoring Marriage Will Be Difficult
Isabel Sawhill, Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at Brookings

Why Marriage-Strengthening Belongs On the Middle Class Agenda
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Director of Civil Society Initiatives at the Institute for American Values

The Sex Crisis Behind the Marriage Crisis
Anna Williams, Junior Fellow at FirstThings


Can the President Have a Marriage Agenda Without Talking about What Marriage Is?

Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation and Editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good. With Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George he is author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense 

“The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” is a timely, compelling and important report, but falls short in a basic way: It never once even attempts to say what marriage is. But you can’t advance a marriage agenda without knowing what marriage is and why it matters for public policy, as my co-authors and I argue in our new book, What Is Marriage?

The report’s authors hope to launch “a new conversation on marriage,” and urge political leaders to encourage “community-based and focused public service announcements that convey the truth about marriage, stability and child wellbeing to the next generation of parents.”

Well, what is the truth about marriage?

The report rightly notes that “marriage is not merely a private arrangement; it is also a complex social institution.” But the report never says what this complex institution is, or why it ought to be governed by the standard marital norms of monogamy, sexual exclusivity and a pledge of permanence—norms that many leading defenders of redefining marriage explicitly reject. Yet without these norms—and the intelligible basis that grounds them—marriage can’t do the work that the authors want it to do.

That is important work indeed, as the report explains. It helpfully documents the retreat from marriage afflicting today’s middle class and how fixing this “is the social challenge for our times.” While in the 1980s “only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers were born outside of marriage,” today that figure has “risen to a whopping 44 percent.” Indeed, the majority of births for women under 30 “now occur outside of marriage.”

Although some have tried to characterize the disappearance of marriage as a problem facing only lower-class America or the black community, the report notes that “family instability can now be found in Middle America almost as frequently as it is among the least educated sector of the population.” And the disappearance of marriage has social costs, especially increased poverty and decreased social mobility, as “researchers are now finding that the disappearance of marriage in Middle America is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in the same communities. … This decline of marriage in Middle America imperils the middle class and fosters a society of winners and losers.”

As a result, more children grow up without the care and support of their mother and father—and it’s costing everyone: “The loss of social opportunity for these children and their families, and the national cost to taxpayers when stable families fail to form—about $112 billion annually, or more than $1 trillion per decade, by one cautious estimate—are significant.” As the report notes, economist Ben Scafidi and his team of researchers found that “if family fragmentation were reduced by just 1 percent, U.S. taxpayers would save an estimated $1.1 billion annually.”

The authors of the report don’t suggest giving up on policy, writing that “it is only with respect to marriage formation that the policy world seems to have decided that very little or nothing can be done.” This isn’t true, as my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation and others have promoted policies to strengthen marriage for quite some time, most recently Robert Rector’s Special Report, “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.”

The various policy proposals in “The President’s Marriage Agenda” deserve more sustained attention and consideration than is allowed here. But a few comments are in order. The authors encourage President Obama to embrace his position as “a cultural leader who can inspire citizens, especially young people,” because “if we are to strengthen marriage and families in America, ultimately this will happen because young people want to bond with one another and give their children the gift of their father and mother in a lasting marriage.” But how can President Obama stress the importance of fathers and mothers while supporting the redefinition of marriage to exclude sexual complementarity?

The report’s fourth recommendation, “End Anonymous Fatherhood,” notes that “the anonymous man who provided his sperm walks away with no obligation.” Although a relatively small percentage of parents “use sperm donation or similar technologies to get pregnant, the cultural power of the idea that it’s acceptable deliberately to create a fatherless child and for biological fathers to walk away from their children is real.”

The authors propose that the U.S. ban anonymity in sperm donation “and reinforce the consistent message that fathers matter.” But how does marriage policy reinforce that message if it redefines marriage to say that mothers and fathers—one of each—are optional for marriage? How does redefining marriage to include lesbian relationships not further incentivize the type of anonymous sperm donation and resulting fatherless children that the authors protest?

Regardless of your stance on redefining marriage, the report argues, you can “talk about gay marriage—and then talk about why marriage is important for the vast majority of people who identify as heterosexual and whose sexual lives quite often produce children.” But is this really true?

After all, it isn’t just the legal title of marriage that encourages adherence to marital norms. There is nothing magical about the word “marriage.” Instead, marriage laws work by embodying and promoting a true vision of what marriage is that makes sense of those norms as a coherent whole.

Redefining marriage would abandon the norm of male-female sexual complementarity as an essential characteristic of marriage. Making that optional would also make other essential characteristics—such as monogamy, exclusivity and permanency—optional, as my co-authors and I argue in What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. We show how this is increasingly confirmed by the rhetoric and arguments of those who would redefine marriage, and by the policies that their more candid leaders embrace.

I should note that I presented some of this evidence in this post last week at Ricochet, quoting LGBT leaders Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage, Victoria Brownworth, Michelangelo Signorile, New York University professor Judith Stacey and University of Calgary professor Elizabeth Brake as they explicitly rejected traditional norms of marriage.

Indeed, the most interesting—and revealing—comments during my week at Ricochet were those that said marriage is simply whatever sort of interpersonal relationship consenting adults—be they two or 10 in number—want it to be: sexual or platonic, sexually exclusive or open, temporary or permanent.

That idea sounds like the abolition of marriage. Marriage is left with no essential features, no fixed core as a social reality—it is simply whatever consenting adults want it to be. Some who see this logic, thinking that marriage has no form and serves no social purpose, conclude that the government should get out of the marriage business.

If so, how will society protect the needs of children—the prime victims of our non-marital sexual culture—without government growing more intrusive and more expensive?

Separating the bearing and rearing of children from marriage burdens children first and foremost, as well as the whole community. It’s the community that often must step in to provide (more or less directly) for their wellbeing and upbringing. A child born and raised outside marriage is six times more likely to experience poverty than a child in an intact family—and therefore welfare expenditures grow. So by encouraging the norms of marriage—monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanence—the state strengthens civil society and reduces its own role.

But marital norms make no sense—as matters of principle—if marriage is redefined. There is no reason of principle why emotional union should be permanent. Or limited to two persons, rather than larger ensembles. Or sexual, much less sexually exclusive. Or inherently oriented to family life and shaped by its demands.

If marriage isn’t founded on a comprehensive union made possible by the sexual complementarity of a man and a woman, then why can’t it occur among more than two people? If marital union isn’t founded on such sexual acts, then why ought it be sexually exclusive? If marriage isn’t a comprehensive union and has no intrinsic connection to children, then why ought it be permanent?

This isn’t to say that couples couldn’t decide to live out these norms where temperament or taste so motivated them; but that there is no reason of principle to demand it of them. So legally enshrining this alternate view of marriage would undermine the norms whose link to the common good justifies state action in the first place.

This highlights the central questions in this debate: what marriage is and why the state recognizes it. It’s not that the state shouldn’t achieve its basic purpose while obscuring what marriage is. Rather, it can’t. Only when policy gets the nature of marriage right do we reap the civil society benefits of recognizing marriage.

The future of our country, then, relies upon the future of marriage. The future of marriage depends on citizens’ understanding of what it is and why it matters—and demanding that government policies support, not undermine, true marriage. Unfortunately, “The President’s Marriage Agenda” overlooks these questions. How successful can a “new conversation on marriage” be when its leaders can’t even say what marriage is?


Why Middle-Class Marriages Need the Church

Katelyn Beaty is Managing Editor of Christianity Today.

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.


Marriage Success: The Value of Apprenticeships and Education

Kevin Bullard is co-founder of MarriageWorks!

Throughout the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the view towards marriage and religiosity evolved drastically as society became more individualistic, and saw divorce as an acceptable way to end a challenging marriage.  In fact, of the 8.75 million additional households since 1970, one-parent homes account for 8.4 million of the total (96 percent), while the number of two-parent households increased by a mere 330,000. Despite the rise, then eventual plateau of the divorce rate in the United States, Americans are still more optimistic about the future of marriage. Numerous studies have consistently cited the numerous benefits of marriage for both men and women, including higher income, better health, more sex, and stable employment (for men).  Still, recent demographic trends have revealed a rise in the age of first marriage. It is for these reasons that I support The National Marriage Project’s President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent.

Of the ten recommendations offered, three of them are of particular interest to me: 1) help young men become marriageable, 2) enact the second chances act to prevent unnecessary divorce, and 3) require premarital education for persons forming stepfamilies.

Help Young Men Become Marriageable

I recently attended a conference that awakened me to the sad state of marriage and family in the African American community. As statistics in the recommendations revealed, of the African American males born since the mid-1960s, more than 20 percent will go to prison. It is sad and shocking that this number is twice as many as the number of African American males who will attend college.

The apprenticeship concept is one that has lost meaning in our society, yet offers a wonderful opportunity for men who have successfully navigated life and gained sure footing to help another young man do the same. While it easy to dismiss today’s generation of African American males and categorize them as uninterested and un-teachable, it is unwise to cast such a large net. Apprenticeships can help separate the truly uninterested and un-teachable from those who simply need a guiding hand, and someone who takes interest in them and their future.

Enact the Second Chances Act to Prevent Unnecessary Divorce

My wife and I spend considerable time offering marriage education, and we sometimes receive messages on our Facebook page from men and women who write lamenting the fact that they have filed for divorce. While a couple may need to spend some structured time apart aimed at rebuilding the marriage, the marriage does not have to end in divorce. Having high-quality education centers or university-based centers of excellence for couples at risk of divorce would offer a reconciliatory voice in the midst of the chorus that advises divorce at the slightest sense of personal displeasure.

Require Premarital Education for Persons Forming Stepfamilies

As I read the recommendation for required premarital education for budding stepfamilies, I thought about friends who are finishing their required coursework before they are allowed to adopt a child. Bringing an adopted child into a new family and culture is no different than bringing stepchildren into a new family. This education could go a long way in highlighting common problems in stepfamilies, and offer best practices that will help the couple and family be successful at building a new family.

Over the years as my wife and I have offered pre-marital education to couples, the number of stepfamilies has overtaken the number of couples who have never been married. Being able to talk about hazards, and how the couple can address them as a team, has been instrumental to those couples.

I support the recommendations offered in this agenda, and appreciate the work of The National Marriage Project to protect marriage and offer commonsense ideas for the President to consider. Marriage has proven to be a boon to individuals, families, and society; so preserving the union is noble and important work.


Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?

June Carbone is Professor of Law at University of Missouri–Kansas City and

Naomi Cahn is Professor of Law at George Washington University.

For years, we have applauded the efforts of the annual State of Our Unions reports to focus on the growing class divide in family stability and to propose policies designed to improve the “state of our unions.” But, this year, as in past years, the report states that the decline of marriage “imperils the middle class” without fully exploring the ways in which the destruction of the economic foundation of the middle class undermines family stability more generally. As a result, while we approve of many of the Project’s proposed policies, we doubt that these policies, good or bad, can fully address the issue.  Instead, we need to place greater attention on the creation of good jobs, the relationship between employment stability and family health, and the societal responsibility to ensure that the next generation of children is not left behind. While the class-based decline in marriage is a symptom of growing inequality and economic privation, an exclusive focus on marriage cannot by itself restore family health.

Over the last thirty years, greater economic inequality has done something very unusual: it has shifted the cultural strategies at the top and the bottom of the economic order in different directions.   At the top, the dedication to stable two, parent families has come not just from a cultural commitment to marriage, but from the fact that the gendered wage gap for college graduates has increased.  As a result, high-earning men outnumber high-earning women to a greater degree today than in 1990, and all but the wealthiest men need high-income women to afford middle class life in the fastest growing and most expensive metropolitan areas. Today, executives no longer marry their secretaries; they marry fellow executives. And in these dual-earner families, the maid cleans the toilets while the parents trade-off homework supervision and Little League attendance.

At the bottom of the economic order, every scholar since Moynihan has documented the link between the disappearance of stable blue collar jobs and the decline of marriage. What receives less attention is that with the increase in the number of men at the top and the bottom of the economic order, there are fewer men in the middle. The women who work as secretaries and cashiers have a much harder time finding a man with a reliable job and increasingly distrust men who spend their earnings, help out less when they are laid off than when they are working, and respond to a request for child support with insistence on custody equal to half the child’s time.

To deal with the emerging class differences that underlie family change, therefore, will ultimately require dealing with the issue of economic inequality directly, the mismatch between marriageable men and marriageable women, and the role of family unfriendly workplaces in exacerbating family instability. Accordingly, we:

  1. Applaud the emphasis on reducing imprisonment and increasing apprenticeships, but believe that these efforts cannot be a substitute for increasing the number of stable jobs. It is time to recognize that a true pro-family agenda must emphasize job creation and promote counter-cyclical fiscal policies that target unemployment and employment pathways not just into the first job but also over the course of the life cycle. Employment instability may have just as pernicious an effect on family well-being as unemployment, and a society in which job growth comes primarily from small businesses needs to have a stronger social safety net that fills in the gaps between jobs, provides universal health care coverage, and facilitates retraining and job market re-entry.
  2. Agree with the efforts to end marriage penalties and increase financial assistance for children. The financial disincentives associated with marriage, however, come not only from third parties such as government, but from the obligations at the core of marriage. Marriage may make sense for breadwinners and dependent caretakers. It may succeed for interdependent dual-earners.  It is fraught for risk for individuals who are both the more reliable wage-earners and the primary caretakers. We would therefore supplement the efforts to increase marriage incentives by ending counterproductive child support enforcement efforts, which often discourage paternal involvement, and providing greater recognition for those who assume an unequal share of family obligations.
  3. Approve of efforts to increase education about intimate relationships, and favor supplementing these efforts with greater attention to early childhood development and parental education.  The most successful programs help couples adjust to new economic realities by discouraging early marriage, encouraging financial responsibility, promoting communication and mutual respect, recognizing that effective birth control is an important component of managing marital and non-marital relationships, and learning to spot the warning signs of domestic violence. In contrast, we find little evidence that after-the-marriage divorce prevention works.

We believe, however, that while some of these steps may be useful, family stability will not improve without greater economic security for families and greater support for children.


Sometimes a Great Notion: Panning for Gold in “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent”

John Culhane is Professor of Law at Widener University.

While much of the nation’s attention has been focused on whether same-sex couples should be permitted to marry,[1] the authors of “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” are keening in a cobwebbed corner of the public square, trying to get someone to care about the “rapid decline of marriage among the almost sixty percent of the nation who are high school educated but not college educated….”

But we should care, and not because of some abstract commitment to the ideal of lifelong commitment that marriage (sort of) still represents. As well as we can ever know anything from social science research, we know this: Kids do best in stable, two-parent homes. To be reductive about the matter, divorce, out-of-wedlock parenting, and cohabitation are generally not conducive to good outcomes for children. Marriage Agenda cites one estimate of a national cost to taxpayers of more than $1 trillion per decade arising from the failure of stable families to form. I’m skeptical of this quantification, but less so of the squishier conclusion that this lack of home stability creates a loss of social opportunity. And as the decline of marriage has exploded into the middle class, the disruptive effects are more worrisome than ever.

To say that these broad conclusions are correct, though, isn’t to concede that they’re either complete or unproblematic. As I mentioned above, they’re reductive. The report doesn’t do much to distinguish the risks and poor outcomes associated with the three quite distinct phenomena it identifies: Divorce, out-of-wedlock parenting, and cohabitation. For example, in one compelling footnote that begged for (but didn’t get) more attention, the authors quote at length from a study that showed the lack of martial stability among poorly and moderately educated women exhibited different characteristics along racial lines: while white couples were likelier to have had multiple marriages, African-Americans were likeliest to never have married at all. These are quite different kinds of instability, and good public health practice requires attention to these differences in marriage-promotion policy. And not all cohabitation is equally risky. For instance, couples who are engaged when cohabitation begins are likelier to stay together than those who are not.

There’s a bigger problem, too. Only so much can be accomplished by targeting marriage, rather than the broader society in which marriage is breaking down. The decline of marriage is both the problem and a symptom of larger upheavals in our social, economic, and civil society. To an extent, marriage is wobbling because families are contained within these broader systems that are losing altitude. Tackling marriage, all by itself, can be expected to have limited effect. The authors acknowledge the middle class’s downward spiral, but then pivot to discuss marriage.

That’s not to say the focus on marriage can have no effect. And the best of the ten recommendations at least implicitly try to address some of these broader issues. Recommendation 3 is to Help Young Men Become Marriageable Men. Subsumed within it are three suggestions, the first of which is the most compelling of the whole lot: Apprenticeships. The authors note that apprenticing is “widely used” outside the U.S., and that, through these kinds of supervised, work-based learning experiences, young men gain skills, learn responsibility, and reap personal, developmental benefits.[2]

Oddly, though, they don’t suggest this kind of training for another arena where they see potential for marriage-positive intervention: the prison population. There, they focus on educating non-violent prisoners on relationship-building skills. But if these same young men – largely uneducated and unskilled – don’t have decent job prospects awaiting them when they emerge from prison, these efforts will be largely a waste of resources. That conclusion is bolstered by data from the separate piece contained within the larger report, Marriage and Relationship Education: A Promising Strategy for Strengthening Low-Income, Vulnerable Families. It seems to me that the title is belied by the very evidence that the authors discuss. For the low-income families, the program either found no significant improvement on “relationship skills and satisfaction”, or (for African-American couples) “small but significant positive…effects” that largely disappeared after three years. I don’t hold out much hope that relationship education simpliciter can accomplish much of anything. It’s building too small a part of human capital.

As for the other recommendations, I’d place them into three categories:

  • Potentially useful in a limited way: Removing tax disincentives for poor people to marry (Recommendation Number 1) is a good idea. So is intervention to prevent divorce (in appropriate cases) (Number 5) ),[3] and requiring premarital counseling for persons forming stepfamilies (Number 6) – although I don’t see a compelling reason for not requiring such counseling of all couples, pre-marriage, as long as it’s reasonable and evidence-based.
  • In a minor key: (Number 8), Engage Hollywood, is all of one sentence (and not even a long one by Henry James’s standards). And (Number 10), Find Your Marriage Voice, seems designed more as a summary of the authors’ principal points, directed at the believers, than as a policy recommendation.
  • Counterproductive or plain out of place: The idea of Tripling the Child Tax Credit (Number 2) in order to increase the proportion of kids in married families is just plain bizarre. If the problem is that not enough people are marrying, it seems that tripling the tax credit will just encourage more folks to have kids – whether they’re married or not. And the recommendation that we End Anonymous Fatherhood (Number 4) by banning anonymous sperm donation wandered in from another debate.

The title of the report is a misnomer. This isn’t “The President’s Marriage Agenda,” but that of the essay’s well-credentialed and thoughtful authors. It should be called “What We Think The President’s Marriage Agenda Should Be,” but of course they’re trying to convey the urgency of their views and recommendations. A more targeted approach would have been more effective, but at least they’re trying.


[1] Yes.

[2] My first reaction to any such suggestion would ordinarily be: “But what about young women?” I didn’t read the recommendation as excluding women, though, but as a way of focusing on a group that’s increasingly missing from the marriage pool. So it was only about my fourth reaction.

[3] The suggestion that couples wait a year before divorce, though, is a singularly bad idea, especially if it’s not equipped with exceptions for cases involving abusive or otherwise destructive relationships. Counseling, good. Forcing people who hate each other to continue living under the same roof, bad.


What Are the Program and Policy Implications of Cohabitation?

Robert Hughes, Jr. is Professor and Head of Human and Community Development at the Univeristy of Illinois.

The most dramatic change in the trends in family life the US over the last 40 years is the rise in the rate of cohabitation. In 1970 only about one-half million couples lived together without getting married; in 2011, about 7.5 million couples cohabitate and the trend has accelerated in the last decade, almost doubling.

The trend in cohabitation rates has led to studies exploring the impact of this trend on marriage quality and divorce rates. Over the past decade the findings have been mixed, but there is increasing convergence that indicates that the impact of cohabitation on marital quality depends on the motivations of the couple entering cohabitation and the experiences during cohabitation. An illustration of the growing scientific consensus on the effects of cohabitation on marriage and divorce is illustrated by the work of Manning and Cohen who report that about 60% of men and women have cohabitated prior to getting married. When the researchers looked at divorce among these couples for the seven years following marriage, the patterns were the same for both those who cohabitated and those who did not.  For both men and women regardless of cohabitation, about 20% were divorced seven years following marriage. Manning and Cohen conclude, “premarital cohabitation was not linked to marital stability for women or men.”

Yet they also found the following: Couples live together with a variety of intentions. For some it is a “trial” marriage and for others there is less of a commitment to the relationship. About 60% of men and women indicate that when they cohabitated they were engaged or planned to get married, the other 40% had no plans for marriage. So how do these couples differ? The general result is that those couples with plans for marriage who cohabitated were less likely to get divorced than cohabitating couples who had no plans for marriage.

There is much we still need to learn about the patterns of cohabitation and the attitudes and motivations for young people’s choice to cohabitate, but an essential aspect that is often overlooked is “emerging adulthood.” This term,coined by Jeffrey Arnett, describes a post-adolescent period of development in the developed world in which young people are still not completely independent of their families and continue to explore their identities and life choices. “Cohabitation” is one aspect of this period of exploration. Arnett asserts that as a society we need to develop a support system to assist these young people.  At least part of that support system would be helping young people explore close relationships and learn to make decisions about healthy relationships.

The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent“ suggests several programs and policies that address issues of emerging adulthood and cohabitation including strengthening marriage education, helping young men with employment, and eliminating the tax barriers to marriage, but I think there are other strategies that need to be considered. If the 20s are a new developmental period, what institutional supports can we create to help young people explore careers and relationships? Is there “post-college/high school” educational infrastructure that can be designed to provide support to young people? Are there employment and/or training equivalents of Pell Grants to support young people’s continued education past high school and/or even past college? Are there specialized living arrangements and engaging social settings that include services to this age group? How do we use social media and the Internet to create engaging online educational programs about couple relationships? Is there a new type of “graduate education” with closer ties to specific jobs or that can be individualized to help young people transition from one field of study to another?

The best indirect evidence that some of these program and policy initiatives may work is to consider the US military. The military branches provide many types of training supports for young people and a wide range of resources in support of marriage and family care for service member families. A recent comparison between military and civilian young people indicates that more military personnel are married than their civilian peers and their marriages are in many cases more stable, especially for those individuals whose marriages are most at-risk—younger at the time of marriage, less education and ethnic minority. Service providers and policymakers should take a closer look at the employment, marriage and family support systems created for young people in the military as a basis for serving a wider range of young people.


Marriage Shores Up Hispanic Families

Alicia E. La Hoz, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, and the founder and executive director of Family Bridges.

“Why did my father leave us? When will he come back?”  A heartbroken 8-year-old wrestles with the new reality that occupies his heart and mind. Complex emotional, psychological and social interpretations can bring some insight into what ultimately drove this father to pull away from his family, but as the report reflects, the economic consequences of ignoring the current marriage, cohabitation and divorce trends are alarming and require a new conversation that addresses the issue comprehensively while considering the complexity of multi-cultural communities. Most recently, the nation witnessed how minority groups including Hispanics played an unprecedented role in re-electing the President. This underscores the urgent need for Hispanic leaders and stake-holders to be part of the marriage agenda and to find a voice in the marriage conversation.

Since the 1970s, the Hispanic community has grown 300%, now compromising 21% of the U.S. population under the age of 25. The impact of this expansion is reflected in the marketplace as Hispanics controlled $978 billion in spending power during 2009[1] and are expected to account for 74 percent of the increase in the nation’s labor force from 2010 to 2020.[2]  This exponential growth is not without challenges to the family, education, poverty, mental health and immigration. For example, of the 6.1 million U.S. children living in poverty in 2010, 37.3 percent were Hispanic, 30.5 percent were white, and 26.6 were black. [3]  The report stresses the economic consequences of unwed parenting and the implication to generational poverty. It also highlights the Child Trends analysis revealing that among women under 30, 53% of births occur outside of marriage. What the report omits is that while the percentage of births outside of marriage increased for all ethnic groups there is variability by race and ethnicity. Latinos and Whites account for the highest proportion of births outside of marriage, 65% Latinos and 61% Whites in comparison to 30% Blacks.  In 1990, according to Child Trends, 37% of births to Latino women were non-marital in comparison to 53% in 2009.[4] Thus, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among Hispanics remains among the highest of all population groups.

The trend is troubling since Hispanics have historically held a positive outlook on marriage and family life, emphasizing values within the traditional family. Economic strains, social isolation, immigration stress, barriers to marriage, and shifts to cultural norms, have challenged the traditional family structure held closely by Hispanics. Hispanics have overcome the challenges faced through a strong work ethic, faith dependence and reliance on strong family values. The strong family values leading to the formation and sustenance of an intact family that would otherwise protect children and their families from the ills of poverty are eroding.

It is essential for the economic wellbeing of the country for reasons explained in the report that the recommendations listed be adopted by state and federal policy makers, promoted by the private business sector, and implemented with consideration for minority groups. One of the recommendations listed, to promote healthy marriage and fatherhood education programs, holds some promise as an effective intervention in reversing the current trends.  The Supporting Healthy Marriage Program Evaluation study of the Healthy Marriage Programs sited in the appendix of this report cites that the effects were stronger for Hispanic and for more distressed couples. These findings align with the local outcome studies of comprehensive programs implemented across the nation.  For example, one of the largest Federally-sponsored programs in the Midwest, Family Bridges, serving approximately 10,000 low-income individuals, couples and families annually, of which 68% are Hispanics has found in follow-up studies of low-income couples who engaged in the marriage education workshops large gains in parenting skills and a dramatic reduction in stress. In addition, one-third of those relying on public aid when they took the workshops no longer needed that help two years after they completed the program.

State and federal policy makers and private donors who invest in marriage and relationship education activities and programs will see positive returns on their investment. Funding opportunities should mirror the best-practice models to ensure programs funded successfully reach the entire family, are comprehensive, and seek out to reach traditionally underserved populations.

The 8-year-old quoted above is Hispanic. He is now increasingly at risk to be a high school dropout, to be a teen parent, and to enter the juvenile justice system and as such will be in a trajectory leading to poverty, for him and for the children he fathers. Now multiply this 8-year-old’s experience exponentially by the millions of Hispanic children currently born to unwed mothers. Indeed, the marriage agenda is relevant for all, and it most urgently requires us to also include solutions that take into account the realities of the Hispanic community.


[1] Selig Center for Economic Growth, Terry College of Business, University of Georgia, July 2009.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[3] Pew Hispanic Center, Childhood Poverty Among Hispanics Sets Record, September 2011.

[4] CDC/National Center for Health Statistics.


Marriage Reports Preach to the Choir?

Kevin Noble Maillard is Professor of Law at Syracuse University.

We need something other than marriage to measure the strength of a family. Relying on a simple status marker to indicate the seriousness of the relationship is a gross oversimplification of a much larger issue. The justifications are expected: married people are happier, richer, smarter, less violent, more reliable, and just all around better. And presumably whiter.

Marriage reports preach to the choir. They identify and confirm the beliefs of a group resistant to cultural change. Even in an era where the meaning of marriage itself may include gays and lesbians, proponents overlook the diverse ways that people can have families. Supporters of marriage cling to a singular idea of the legitimate family—any variation or deviation cannot exist. Under this analysis, there are no shared roads to happiness or stability: marriage succeeds and cohabitation bleeds.

The underlying hope of the State of Our Unions 2012 report is acculturation. If poor and minority populations embraced the stabilizing ideals of marriage, pathological cycles would be broken. Their children would perform better in schools. Their household income would increase. They would be more productive members of society. And they would be more self-reliant and less dependent on welfare.

The problem is getting them to see the good in marriage, and how it benefits not only themselves, but all of society. But the cultural difference is so great, the belief goes, that it will take nothing less than Presidential support to convince “Middle America” of the conclusive superiority of married life. Otherwise, the unmarried masses, left to their own natural desires, seek fulfillment only in temporary pleasures: entertainment, food, and sex.

The pervasive worry—or labored exasperation—with unmarried people is their perceived, categorical difference from married people. Unmarried people are poor, uneducated, short-sighted, and violent. They act before they think, and have a limited view of family planning that only includes birth control. Government assistance and social programs are part of their everyday, dependent lives. They are prone to gun violence, according to Mitt Romney. Their children are doomed to poverty, sexual abuse, and malnutrition, and were born only to receive more assistance. Fathers are a distant, abstract concept. They probably rent.

Married people, however, are economically stable, college-educated members of the middle class. They are employed. Their children are clean and obedient. They provide taxpayer dollars rather than take them. Stepford is not an offensive concept. Family planning entails a vision of a shared future severed only in death. They have a joint savings account, and they own their home. They are not gay.

These are stereotypes, of course, but any marriage report necessarily believes in them. Deviations from the marital norm of stability and the nonmarital norm of chaos are problematic. Discussions of violent husbands are absent, as are high-income cohabitants. Creative people with long hair and colorful pasts shed them once they approach the altar. Married people are never laid off, fired, or underpaid, and married men don’t drink, abandon, or molest their children. Rich people always marry; poor people never do.

In many ways, this is the Moynihan report dressed in new, slightly less racialized robes. Civilized readers observe the pathologies of the uncivilized other, which sparks an academic “tsk, tsk” for the barbaric underclass. It’s a familiar group approach to cultural decline, and the audience is made clear. “You might expect that the less education people have,” a footnote admits,  “the more partnerships they would form and dissolve, and that African-Americans and Hispanics would have more partnerships than whites.” The foundation is laid: uneducated minorities are perceived to have more partners. Yet the study finds that “having multiple partnerships was not a minority group pattern.”

Who is the “you” in the “you might expect?” Presumably it’s not uneducated minorities. With this outlook, the married vs. unmarried “problem” isn’t going anywhere.


Putting the “Other” Marriage Equality Problem on the Agenda

Linda C. McClain is Paul M. Siskind Research Scholar and Professor of Law at Boston University.

Does President Obama need a “marriage agenda”? If so, what should it be? A notable feature of the recent 2012 presidential election – by contrast to the 1992 or even the 2008 election — was the comparative absence of rhetoric about family values, family policy, and the relationship between strong families and a strong nation. Certainly, the party platforms addressed these issues; in the debates, however, the candidates spoke mostly about the economy, health care, taxes, and foreign policy. Remarkably, perhaps because President Obama had already declared his support for the right of same-sex couples to enter into civil marriage, marriage equality also did not feature as a fiercely contentious issue in these debates. Again, the party platforms did address the issue: Democrats supported same-sex marriage and opposed the Defense of Marriage Act; Republicans supported “traditional” marriage and a federal marriage amendment, and faulted the Obama Administration for failing to defend DOMA. Thus, the new The State of Our Unions 2012 Report, “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” accurately observes: “family structure and child well-being were seldom mentioned during the October 2012 presidential debates.” Also apt is its observation that: “an active public debate about the right to gay marriage has occupied American minds and the media in recent years, becoming arguably the most covered, and most contested, marriage issue of our time.” That marriage issue, in my view, is one of basic fairness, justice, equality, and rights. I support opening up civil marriage to same-sex couples.

SOOU 2012 proposes to change the subject — to shift attention from this highly visible marriage equality issue to what we might call “the other marriage equality problem” in the United States: the growing marriage gap between more affluent and educated Americans and other Americans, or between the marriage haves and have nots. The report warns that the gap is not simply the previously observed divide between the affluent and the poor; it also separates the more educated from the “moderately” educated people who make up Middle America – the “forgotten sixty percent” to which the report refers. Another troubling gap is between marital aspirations and actual practice in Middle America. That gap, too, is familiar from influential work on low income men and women and why they value marriage but often do not marry. The report asserts that Middle America experiences that same disconnect. Increasingly, people separate marriage from parenthood, postponing or simply forgoing the former, but not the latter. As the report notes, Charles Murray tells this story in his book Coming Apart. Journalist Hanna Rosin also details it in her book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women.

Family inequality has implications for children. This is a reason The State of Our Unions 2012 urges a national marriage agenda. Prominent sociologist Sara McLanahan has warned about the “diverging destinies” of children due to diverging patterns of family life. Other powerful phrases capturing this concern over children are “the reproduction of inequalities” and the “intergenerational transmission” of advantage and disadvantage.

We should care about this other marriage equality problem. Why? Across the political spectrum, there is recognition, as I elaborate in my new book, Ordered Liberty: Rights, Responsibilities, and Virtues (with James Fleming), that our political order assumes that families and civil society play a role in generating and sustaining the American experiment in “ordered liberty.” Families carry out social reproduction – nurturing children and preparing them for capable and responsible lives as good persons and good citizens. Other institutions of civil society and government also have responsibilities for this task and for supporting families in their efforts as well. Hence, it is important to have family policy – at the state and federal level.

I do not endorse every item on The State of Our Unions 2012’s “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent.” However, I share the report’s conviction that family inequality warrants attention. I give the authors credit for calling attention to how economic factors shape this family inequality, even if I would not draw exactly the same conclusions they do as to remedies. What is refreshing about this report is that it does not engage in scapegoating by somehow linking the progress made by gay men and lesbians in gaining access to civil marriage to the weakening of a “marriage culture.” While the report, regrettably (in my view), does not follow the lead of Institute for American Values president David Blankenhorn in explicitly embracing marriage equality and saying it is time to start talking about the goods that may flow from same-sex marriages, it takes a step forward by not including opposing same-sex marriage on its “marriage agenda.” Indeed, some assertions are encouragingly inclusive: “It’s important to recognize that marriage is good for all kinds of families.” Perhaps even those formed by same-sex couples

The State of Our Unions 2012 calls for public service announcements “that convey the truth about marriage, family stability, and child well-being to the next generation of parents.” To its credit, but to the dismay of Ryan Anderson (in his post for this symposium and elsewhere)*, it does not proclaim that the “truth” to convey is that only conjugal marriage, rooted in male-female sexual complementarity, is “true” marriage and that the state should only recognize such marriages. For Anderson, this dooms the report’s marriage agenda: it is impossible to have an agenda unless public policy can get the “nature” of marriage right. However, the view of the “truth” of marriage that he and his co-authors Robert George and Sherif Girgis have repeatedly and provocatively propounded simply does not mesh with how much of contemporary family law envisions the institution of civil marriage, even it accurately reflects certain theological understandings. To me, it is a sign of progress that The State of Our Unions 2012 does not insist that defending that particular, teleological view of marriage should be a plank in a national marriage agenda aiming at addressing the other marriage equality problem. Clearly, it is not a plank that President Obama could – or should — embrace.

*Note from the Editor: Ryan Anderson published his symposium piece on December 18, 2013. Other symposium participants did not have access to each other’s responses prior to Thursday December 20th outside of Anderson’s published piece.


A Wrap on a New Hollywood Rap

Mitch Pearlstein, Ph.D. is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment.

Any project that’s the product of the five authors of “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” can’t help but make a significant contribution. And when it comes to the series of which it is a part – The State of Our Unions – I take it as a second truism that it routinely warrants at least as much applause as that garnered by that other State of the Union in January every year.

Yet if I were to offer one criticism of this important document it would have to do with its large missed opportunity in regards to what the entertainment industry might do in strengthening marriage in the United States. Instead there’s a single sentence about how the President and other leaders must “engage Hollywood in a conversation about popular culture ideas about marriage and family formation, including constructive critiques and positive ideas for changes in media depictions of marriage and fatherhood.” This might be fine for a stage setter, but we need another scene.

So let me suggest a page or two of script. Imagine, if you will, a movie with someone like Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, or Denzel Washington saying the following to a young man or young woman purposely considering bringing a baby into this world outside of marriage or too easily settling for divorce.

“I assure you,” one of the Oscar winners opens up, “I know life can be terribly unpredictable and difficult. In fact, it usually is. This is especially the case when it comes to the most personal and treasured things going on in our lives, starting with our children and other people we love. It also can be especially the case when it comes to people we may not love very much anymore at all, if we ever really did. And I very much assure you as well that I’m far from the best person in the world to talk to you about these matters, as my own life has been jammed with mistakes and disappointments.

“You might say what we’re discussing are holy matters, but my interest in being holier than thou or anyone else is zero, and to the extent I may come across as presumptuous or arrogant, I’m truly sorry. But whatever the risk of intrusion on my part and discomfort on yours, we each owe it to everyone we love, and everyone we’re obliged protect, to consider several uncomfortable facts about current American life, most of all those facing and holding back young people.

“In simplest and starkest terms, the United States has one of the highest out-of-wedlock birth rates in the world. We also have one of the highest divorce rates in the world. These stubborn patterns and trends are the opposite of good news for any group, but they’re particularly bad news for boys and girls, as they diminish their well-being now and undercut their future. Does single parenthood always hurt kids educationally and in other ways? Of course not, is the answer. But the fuller and unavoidable answer is that children’s odds of doing well are measurably better if they grow up under the same roof with their married mother and father than if they grow up in any other setting.

“Children are the most joyous of blessings. And I deeply appreciate how enormous numbers of Americans believe that siring and bearing them are the most meaningful things they ever will do in their lives.  But I’m afraid we’ve reached a stage in which we must recognize that while the happiness and hopes of adults are surely important, the health and prospects of children must be understood as more so, as far too many of them are doing poorly on their often unduly rocky road to adulthood.

“For millions of kids, more specifically, trying to grow up with holes where both their parents should be is a very big reason why this is the case. Or more specifically still, unless we change and start bringing far fewer babies into this world outside of marriage, and likewise, unless we divorce and separate far less often, our children will not do nearly as well as they otherwise might and as we all hope and pray.

[Cue the richer music.]

“Mothers and fathers have always sacrificed for their children. It’s what they’re supposed to do. But we’ve come to a time and place in which parents, as well as people who are not yet parents, must think first and foremost about boys and girls they’re responsible for or someday may come to be. One way or another, both men and women – and especially teenagers – must better commit to not having children without first being married. And if and when married, they must better commit to building unions that are loving and respectful and lasting.”


Restoring Marriage Will Be Difficult

Isabel Sawhill is co-director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at Brookings.

This report sounds an alarm about marriage trends in middle class America. It is full of important facts and citations to the literature. Indeed, I know of no better source for such information than theInstitute for American Values and the National Marriage Project. As the authors note, marriage is alive and well among the best educated but rapidly disappearing among those with less than a college degree. What we are seeing is alternative living arrangements that have spread from the poor, and especially poor blacks, to the rest of society. The consequences for children and for society have been far from benign.

Against this backdrop, the authors argue for a more muscular response including: ending marriage penalties in tax and benefit programs, providing help to less skilled men so that they can become better marriage partners, more investment in marriage and relationship education, and a more robust effort by civil society to restore a marriage culture.

While I am deeply sympathetic to most of this report’s conclusions and to the wake-up call it embodies, I have three reactions that I believe need to be part of this discussion.

First, I am conflicted. My right brain says that marriage is a good thing for all the reasons enumerated in the report. My left brain says that we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It may be possible to slow the decline in marriage but I am increasingly doubtful that it can be resurrected in its 20th century form. The interesting question is what form will the much greater diversity of living arrangements take in the future. I suspect marriage as we have known it is not coming back. A combination of greater affluence, more gender equality, and changes in attitudes are conspiring against a restoration.

Second, I am somewhat less optimistic than the authors about the ability of their policy agenda to make much of a difference. In part, this reflects my belief that the trends we are witnessing are deep seated and that the authors’ preferred policies, while perfectly sensible and probably helpful on the margins, are swimming against a tide that is too strong to be reversed. Moreover, the research on what such policies have accomplished to date is not very reassuring.

Third, like the authors, I am concerned about the consequences. However, I put greater faith in policies and messaging that encourage young adults to defer childbearing until they are ready to be parents — or to not become parents at all. If childless adults do not marry, whatever the consequences for them, it does not significantly harm others. The problem for single parents is not that they are single; it is that they are parents as well. Parenting is hard enough for married parents; it is even more difficult for those who must do it alone. I say this realizing that many single parents did not choose this role. But then I am reminded of the fact that 70 percent of pregnancies to single women under 30 are unintended. Something is wrong in an era when many effective forms of contraception are available and often subsidized, yet the vast majority of young adults are still not taking responsibility for the consequences of their sexual encounters. In addition, while the policy hurdles to successfully providing young adults with the motivation and the means to prevent unwanted pregnancies and births are high, the task seems to me to be less daunting than an effort to bring back marriage.

In sum, by all means let’s work to restore marriage as the best environment in which to raise children but at the same time let’s stop the epidemic of unplanned childbearing that creates unwed (or temporarily cohabiting) mothers in the first place.


Why Marriage-Strengthening Belongs On the Middle Class Agenda

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is the Director of Civil Society Initiatives at the Institute for American Values.

The President’s Marriage Agenda” is an important contribution to the decades-long discussion of the middle class. Until now, the discussion has been about wages and jobs. With this report, the authors introduce marriage and marriage-strengthening policies into the discussion. We now have the makings of an expanded agenda to strengthen and rebuild the middle class.

For the past thirty or so years, we have had a lively discussion about the decline in the size of the middle class. It has focused on economic conditions:  falling wages among noncollege workers; the steady drop in secure union jobs; and the loss of defined benefit pensions; and the effects of globalization; deindustrialization; and technological innovation. Accordingly, the middle class agenda has advanced proposals to bring back well-paying jobs and to provide more education and job training opportunities for noncollege Americans.

So far, however, such efforts have not done enough to slow, much less reverse, the economic slide of workers in the noncollege ranks. This is discouraging but it is not a reason to stop trying. We have to keep at it. But it is also clear that the economic agenda, however necessary, is inadequate to address the problems of the middle class. To fully engage these problems, we have to take into account the changes in the intimate relationships of a growing share of noncollege America.

As the report makes clear, over recent decades, the middle class has been fracturing into two separate and economically unequal groups based not only on declining jobs and wages but also on sharply divergent reproductive and family formation strategies. The college-educated are following a traditional sequence in their family lives: they are earning four-year degrees; establishing themselves in jobs; getting married; and then having children. Once they have children, they are engaged in the intensive and prolonged nurture of their offspring.

The non-college educated – those with high school and perhaps additional post-secondary education – are increasingly departing from this sequence. They are struggling to find work and falling short. They are not doing much better in their search for love. Their intimate partnerships are short-term, mutually exploitative, and conflict-ridden. Men and women are pursuing separate reproductive strategies. Men get sex without strings. Women get babies without the fuss and muss of a man around the house. In the meanwhile, the children born of their unstable and insecure relationships begin life with disadvantages that are hard to overcome.

For all young people today, the pathway into a stable marriage is prolonged and arduous. It takes more time, discipline, and maturity than it once did. In negotiating that pathway, college plays an important role. The advantage of a four-year college degree is not just economic. It is social. College life provides an extended moratorium for young men and women who are sexually active but not yet ready for marriage or children or jobs. In my years living in a university town, I can attest to the fact that the average undergraduate is no more mature or disciplined than the average kid who works at 7-11 – maybe less so. But where the undergrad does have an advantage is that he can get drunk and hurl bottles at the police and he will get a slap on the wrist from Dean of Students. The kid at 7-11 may have to do time for a similar offense. (For him, it’s not just college partying. It’s called assault with a deadly weapon.) And while he’s in jail, he will lose his job.

Then, too, the coeducational experience is a kind of social curriculum. It puts men and women in the classroom together as peers; houses them in coed dorms; fosters friendships; encourages shared activities in both sports and studies; and punishes those who engage in discrimination on the basis of gender, race and sexual orientation. This system is hardly perfect. Colleges have their share of sexual assaults, date rapes, and gender violence. But in the main, this period of coeducational coexistence helps to establish norms of mutual respect that set expectations for future relationships and later marriage. Men and women learn to treat each other as equals. They consult each others’ desires. These lessons are harder to learn in the bars and clubs where many of the noncollege young hang out.


The Sex Crisis Behind the Marriage Crisis

Anna Williams is a Junior Fellow at FirstThings.

The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent” demonstrates convincingly that we should try to strengthen the institution of marriage and puts forward many ways we can begin to do so. It falls short only in failing to acknowledge how today’s sex and dating scene has contributed to the marriage crisis.

Given the authors’ hope of attracting the attention of lawmakers, their emphasis on public policy—the social safety net, job opportunities, education programs, and more—is understandable. Such initiatives have proven effective in strengthening marriage in the past, as the authors point out, and we should try to implement them more widely.

My favorite of the report’s recommendations, however, was the last: “Find your marriage voice.” An individual may acknowledge the societal benefits of marriage, but that will not lead him to marry any more than recognizing the societal benefits of fighting obesity will lead him to lose weight. Only a personal desire for marriage, and the faith that marriage can work, will inspire more Americans to tie the knot. Public service announcements are unlikely to accomplish this; more effective would be face-to-face conversations with and support from friends, relatives, social workers, religious leaders, and mentors.

Despite the report’s strengths, I was struck by the authors’ near-silence on the subject of sex. The breakdown of marriage stems not only from economic factors but also from changing standards in the realm of sex, dating, and intimate relationships. Making these standards more conducive to marriage is as crucial as political reform if we are to restore the institution.

Let’s start by acknowledging that there is no such thing as consequence-free sex. No form of contraception is 100 percent effective; even a one-night stand can result in the creation of a child. Aside from pregnancy, sex has dramatic effects on physical, mental, and emotional health. Hookups, for instance, significantly increase teenagers’ [1] and female college students’ [2] risk of depression. The more lifetime sexual partners [3] an adult woman has, the more likely she is to be depressed and to report a lower level of life satisfaction. Sexual satisfaction is highest [4] and the risks of sex lowest in the context of marriage.

But even Americans who hope to get married can easily damage their chances of doing so successfully. Those who first have sex at a young age are less likely [5] than those who wait to achieve satisfying romantic relationships as adults. Studies also suggest that having sex early in the course of a relationship[6] can undermine the relationship’s development and lead (at least for women) to lower relationship quality, possibly because sex causes partners to overlook other important factors.

This should not come as a surprise. It is hard to imagine that young people can transition smoothly from casual flings to the committed, monogamous relationships most of them desire. Those who have spent their twenties in a series of short-lived sexual relationships may struggle to adjust to the long-term demands of a marriage.

Admitting and teaching these things is not tantamount to calling for a return to the 1950s; it is merely to acknowledge reality. And efforts to restore a more conservative sexual ethic may gain more sympathetic reception than some would expect. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, some six in ten teens [7] who have had sex wish they had waited longer before doing so, and nearly nine in ten teens believe they “should be given a strong message that they should not have sex until they are at least out of high school.” Furthermore, despite perceptions that American teenagers are becoming ever more sexualized, the CDC reports [8] that the percentage of teens who are sexually active has dropped in recent decades.

The difficulty, of course, lies in actually living out the call for greater sexual restraint. Sex educators should be more honest about the downsides of the hookup culture, but abstinence-only sex education has been notoriously unsuccessful. Probably the best way to promote a healthier sexual culture is through supporting families: Studies demonstrate [9] that teens who have married parents, who have positive relationships with their parents, and who know that their parents disapprove of teen sex are more likely to delay sexual activity than their peers.

Yet America’s sexual culture is dysfunctional long beyond the teenage years. Young adults—who are quick to enter sexual relationships and cohabit, but reluctant to marry—likewise need the encouragement of relatives, friends, faith leaders, and mentors in order to develop the kind of lasting relationships that lead to marriage.

Love, sex, and marriage remain closely tied in most people’s minds, even as they are less connected in their lives. Helping Americans tie these experiences together again is crucial to fostering a culture where both adults and children can flourish.


[1] http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Dec12/TeenSex.html

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17599248?dopt=Abstract

[3] Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying, page 139

[4] See e.g. the report cited in first footnote of  http://www.familyfacts.org/briefs/1/the-benefits-of-marriage but I believe many surveys/studies have shown this

[5] http://www.utexas.edu/news/2012/10/18/does-true-love-wait-age-of-first-sexual-experience-predicts-romantic-outcomes-in-adulthood/

[6] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00996.x/abstract (summary at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201208/take-it-slow-if-you-want-your-relationship-last)  see also http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/fam/24/6/766/ (summary at http://www.livescience.com/10935-delaying-sex-relationships-study-finds.html)

[7] http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/pdf/pubs/WOV_2012.pdf

[8] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_031.pdf

[9] http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2008/10/teen-sex-the-parent-factor