A lot of the reaction to this week's shocking Pew Research Center report on the declining institution of marriage in America has had a positive spin to it. Yes, the marriage rate has fallen to about 50 percent of all adults, compared to 72 percent in 1960, pundits say, but isn't it nice that Americans are becoming so broad-minded that they now accept all kinds of love-based relationships under the definition of "family"?
Or, as one report on msnbc.com put it, marriage is becoming "a menu choice rather than the central organizing principle of our society." A lot of marriages are temporary, anyway, the writer continues. "And yet society endures. ...we've come to see other paths as not only morally acceptable, but equally workable."
Workable for whom?
The frightening thing about the Pew report is that so many people seem unwilling to dig through the numbers and put them in perspective. That perspective includes numerous other studies that link the health and well-being of children to whether their parents are married.
The National Survey of Family Growth published a study in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at the behavior of teenage girls. If a girl's parents were married at the time of her birth, she was 42 percent less likely to report having had sex as a teenager than a girl whose parents were cohabiting.
And when the specific roles of parents are studied, the results are no less illuminating. A compilation of studies by fatherhood.org found that a child in a home without a father is five times more likely to live in poverty than one with both parents; children whose fathers are absent are more likely to suffer a burn or other serious household accident than those with two parents; fatherless kids are significantly more likely than others to end up in prison (several studies of inmates, from juvenile offenders on up, show that most grew up without a father); and children without engaged fathers are more likely to abuse alcohol and illegal drugs.
The absence of marriage has other consequences. Unwed mothers suffer more abuse, including the brunt of violent crime, than do married mothers, and their children are 6 to 30 times more likely to be seriously abused than are children in traditional families.
And there are economic consequences. A recent Wall Street Journal story reported that 40 percent of cohabitating parents live below the poverty level, compared to only 8 percent of married parents. Meanwhile, 23 percent of the children of single or cohabitating parents were "suspended or expelled from school" during the past year, compared to 10 percent of the children of married parents.
If marriage is just a menu choice, the rest of the entrees are laced with salmonella and other poisons. The Pew study found that marriage is the least prevalent among the poor and uneducated. Unfortunately, that also is the demographic most likely to produce offspring with little chance of overcoming their environmental disadvantages. It is a group that needs committed marriage the most.
Too many Americans are confusing love and marriage. Love is a precursor to marriage, but marriage is all about a commitment to focus life on something greater than one's self. A host of life-changing attitudes and benefits follow when people commit to seeking the happiness of a spouse or a child ahead of their own, not just for the family but for society at-large.
The Pew study is a wake-up call. Americans need a return to traditional marriage and fidelity. To believe the current trend comes without consequences is foolish, indeed.