A large body of academic work supports the notion that marriage is good for society. So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study last week showing that the marriage rate in the United States has fallen to its lowest level in recorded history, that ought to make everyone take notice.
This is a trend with long-term negative consequences.
The report covered the years from 1900 to 2018, but the government has collected information on the number of people getting married since 1867, and today’s figure — only 6.5 marriage licenses issued during the year per 1,000 people — is the lowest on record.
Significantly, the figures were captured prior to today’s COVID-19 pandemic. Widespread disruptive events, such as the Great Depression and wars, tend to dampen marriage rates, meaning the rate may have slumped even lower in 2020.
The irony of the 2018 figure is that experts widely attribute it to concerns among young adults about strained finances. That year was marked by a robust economy and plentiful jobs.
Experts say middle-income earners and people without a college education still were experiencing financial stress, and these demographics led the way in the decline of marriage.
Still, a quick look at the figures shows how previous generations had the courage to take their vows despite uncertain times. While the marriage rate per thousand fell from 10.1 during the 1929 economic heyday to 8.7 in Depression-laden 1933, it quickly rebounded to 10.3 in 1934 and remained at that level or above during the rest of the distressed ’30s, topping out at 11.3 in 1937, another year of stock market crashes.
The second irony in this is that studies have shown a positive correlation between marriage and economic security. Under normal circumstances (the current pandemic may be an exception), married men are more likely to be employed than their single counterparts. They work longer hours and earn more money, and their productivity, according to a study published in American Economic Review, is 26% better than single men.
Married couples tend to save more money, on average, than unmarried couples. They also become better prepared for retirement. Clearly, for couples in love, marriage may be the answer to economic distress, not something to avoid because of it.
The CDC noted that marriage correlates with better health and longevity. Other studies connect marriage to a reduction in crime, including domestic violence, as well as to an increase in regular religious devotion, with its attendant effects on charitable giving and community volunteerism.
The downward trend for marriage, then, has alarming implications for the long-term health of society.
The current downward trend began after 1982, a year in which 10.6 of every 1,000 Americans entered marriage. While some experts wonder whether the end of the pandemic will result in a spike, this trend has been steady and resilient, persisting despite some of the most prosperous years in the nation’s history. It is inexorably tied to a decline in the birth rate, which comes with its own long-term disastrous consequences.
What to do about it? Some have suggested expanding tax advantages and other official incentives for married people. Others suggest revamping school curricula to emphasize the social benefits of such unions. These are positive notions, but urging people to marry for the sake of marriage, without the necessary skills or the commitment to succeed, isn’t likely to solve the problem.
This is a cultural shift to which the nation must devote its resources in order to reverse. The first step is for people to widely recognize the problem and its long-term consequences.