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National marriage rates in nosedive

Marriage in the U.S. is about to take another devastating blow. The Census Bureau plans to delete questions about marriage and divorce from its yearly American Community Survey (ACS). For years, the public’s answers to these questions, drawn from randomly selected samples, have provided vital information to researchers studying marriage and divorce. The data are essential not only for identifying trends, but for developing policies geared toward strengthening families at a time when family fragmentation is at its worst.

Marriage rates are at an all-time low while cohabitation and single motherhood have skyrocketed. Predictably, the plight of children, who suffer the most catastrophic consequences, largely continues to be ignored.

Marriage, on the other hand, is the “gold standard” when it comes to child outcomes. Children who grow up in intact families are more likely to achieve higher levels of education, in turn increasing their odds of marrying, having higher incomes and thus continuing a cycle of wealth and health for their own children. Lower-income Americans, however, are rapidly retreating from marriage, signaling a reverse cycle for themselves and their children. Add to that the ever-widening gap of income inequality in the U.S. at a time when research also demonstrates a strong association between marriage and wealth-building.

And where are African-American families in all this? In far worse shape. In 1960, 61 percent of African-Americans were married, now that number is about half.

And now the Census Bureau wants to nix critical data collection, questions the Census Bureau added only a few years ago in direct response to the lack of sufficient data on marriage and divorce. The government acknowledges that data collection is low cost, takes respondents little time to answer and garners few public complaints.

Meanwhile the media continues spreading happy news that marriage is purportedly in fine shape, and urging an end to the so-called myth of the divorce surge, claiming that the divorce rate has been declining for three decades. Researchers at the University of Minnesota vehemently disagree, however, citing flawed data of a minority academic view that underestimates the incidence of divorce. Indeed, using more recent and believed-to-be more reliable data taken directly from the ACS — data the Census Bureau now seeks to eliminate — Minnesota researchers have concluded there was actually a substantial increase in divorce rates during those years.

In addition, gray divorce numbers continue rising. The non-college educated are falling drastically behind economically with fewer tying the knot and in turn passing on the economic and emotional protection to children that marriage affords. And when they do marry, their divorce rates remain at peak levels. The only segment of the population researchers seem to agree that trends in marital stability look favorable for is for the younger, college-educated set who married after 2000.

But should the trends of the young elite justify allowing the rest of America to eat cake? Do we even know enough about these young marriages to comfortably take the wait and see and do nothing policy approach of the last four decades under our nationwide system of no-fault divorce? Look what happened when we did.

Clearly, our divorce laws and policies have eroded the institution of marriage in America and our confidence in it. And they have devastated our families. And now we have not only a growing income gap on our hands, but a widening marriage gap too. Marriage in the U.S. is dying, and the Census Bureau’s proposal to eliminate vital data collection may only further nudge it along.

Beverly Willett is an author, lawyer and co-chairwoman of the Coalition for Divorce Reform. Learn more and contact her at