Of all the issues that loom large on the horizon as potential disasters for the future of America and other Western cultures, the disintegration of marriage casts the largest shadow. Unfortunately, it isn't often seen that way because, unlike huge federal budget deficits, falling credit ratings and war, its effects do not seem apparent or immediate. The decision not to marry and to produce children in a cohabiting relationship is seen by many as little more than a lifestyle choice that doesn't affect other people.
However, new figures released this week by the National Center for Health Statistics bring the scope of the trend into focus. More Americans are choosing cohabitation over marriage, and more first children are being born into cohabiting relationships than just a few years ago. The increase has been 83 percent since 2002, with 22 percent of all first births coming into such a situation in the period of 2006-10.
This continues a long and steady trend. In 1985, only 9 percent of first births were to cohabiting women.
The United States isn't alone in this trend among Western nations. In Great Britain, the Office of National Statistics released figures this week comparing life today with 100 years ago. The report coincides with the centennial of the Titanic sinking. It found that the population of England and Wales has almost doubled in that time, but that there are fewer marriages today, in actual numbers, than then. The number of births within marriages in 2010 were roughly equal to the number of births outside wedlock in England. One hundred years ago, however, the ratio was far different, with roughly 37,000 illegitimate births compared to nearly 850,000 within marriage.
This isn't some sort of grand sociological experiment in which the modern world is engaged. The outcome of such behavior is known and understood, defined by reams of studies and evidence. As Elizabeth Wildsmith, Nicole Steward-Streng and Jennifer Manlove reported in a research brief for the Heritage Foundation, studies show that couples who have children outside marriage "are younger, less healthy and less educated than are married couples who have children." More importantly, the children born to nonmarried couples face a host of disadvantages. They "tend to grow up with limited financial resources; to have less stability in their lives because their parents are more likely to split up and form new unions; and to have cognitive and behavioral problems, such as aggression and depression."
Many of these problems are as much the consequence of living with parents who are not completely committed to each other as they are from financial difficulties.
Unfortunately, there is a strong racial and ethnic component to the data, as well. Among black women, about 80 percent of first children are born outside of marriage. Of these, 18 percent are cohabiting. Children born to single mothers have even more acute financial disadvantages than those born to cohabiting parents.
USA Today quoted experts as saying a poor economy may have accelerated the trend against marriage. If so, this represents a foolish choice that will not be in the couple's or the child's long-term interests.
Public policy makers were more focused on ways to encourage traditional marriage a few years ago than they are today. While matters of war and the economy certainly deserve a great deal of attention, the nation would be well-served if they would refocus those efforts. Family matters, and the expenses involved in mitigating poor choices, are not far removed from the other problems that plague society.