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Does marriage help achieve the American dream?

Stable family life disappearing for millions as marriage rate has declined, Utah Sen. Mike Lee says

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with reporters and members of the editorial board at the Deseret News and KSL in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with reporters and members of the editorial board at the Deseret News and KSL in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016.
Hans Koepsell, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The good news about marriage is that the fabled statistic that 1 in 2 marriages end in divorce is no longer true, which means more children are being reared in intact families where they tend to be happier and better prepared for life.

Divorce is down more than 30% since 1980, and seems to be headed lower, said University of Virginia sociology professor Brad Wilcox.

“A clear majority of marriages being formed today will go the distance,” he told a congressional committee Tuesday.

The bad news, he said, is that the nation still faces a deep divide when it comes to family structure and stability, with children from black and less-educated homes facing markedly higher rates of family instability and single parenthood.

“The family divide in America matters because the American dream is in much better shape when stable marriage anchors the lives of children, and the communities they grow up in,” said Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project.

“No family arrangement besides marriage affords children as much stability as does this institution.”

Wilcox was among panelists at a Joint Economic Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, titled, “Improving Family Stability for the Well-being of American Children.”

Lee said stable family life has disappeared for millions of children as the marriage rate has declined. Decreased family stability has economic, physical and emotional consequences. Children in single-parent homes are less likely to graduate high school, go to college or become part of the labor force as adults.

Changing romantic norms, cultural individualism, retreat from religion and government policies have contributed to the breakdown of the family, he said. The federal government also penalizes marriage through the tax code and the welfare system.

“Our federal government should not be in the business of punishing marriage,” he said. “Instead, it should support policies that strengthen marriage, and thus improve the likelihood of family stability for children.”

The American Family Survey, a national poll of attitudes about family life conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, has tracked marriage trends for the past five years.

The most recent survey found last year that U.S. adults are slightly less likely than they were five years ago to view marriage as crucial to forging strong families, and the number who deem marriage “out-of-date” has grown a little.

At the same time, however, most American adults favor the institution of marriage, and their view of how well families in America are doing has been largely stable over the past half-decade. They’re especially happy with their own unions, though they think marriage generally is weaker.

But Americans are increasingly concerned about how economic issues are affecting families.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., the committee vice chairman, said young people want financial stability before getting married. They’re not anti-marriage, but pragmatic and pro-success, he said.

The real challenge facing families, whether they live in rural communities or large cities, is economic, he said. Millions of families, he said, are one car breakdown or one trip to the emergency room away from financial crisis or ruin.

“When people are living paycheck to paycheck, when wages are basically where they were four years ago, is it any wonder that adults postpone marriage?” Beyer said.

Kay Hymowitz, of the Manhattan Institute, has spent the past 23 years studying the decline of marriage and its causes, impact on children, and relationship to poverty and inequality. The underappreciated part of the story, she said, is what some family scholars call the “marriageable men problem.”

The most common explanation for the decline of marriage and mother-father families at the lower end of the income ladder is the moribund economic fortunes of low-skilled men, she said.

Women want to marry men with jobs, even if they work themselves, and they want to marry men who make at least as much or more than they do, Hymowitz said. Despite women’s extraordinary gains over the past decades in education, income and careers, both sexes still expect husbands to earn at least as much as their wives do.

“Women who can’t find such men will choose not to marry. Judging from their behavior thus far, either they will become single mothers or not have children at all,” Hymowitz said.

To ensure more children grow up in stable, two-parent families, attention must focus on young men, particularly less educated and minority men, she said.

Schools needs to invest more in boys’ lagging reading and writing skills and more prestige must be given to trades, apprenticeships and technical training, she said.

Also, fathers’ contributions to the household must be reaffirmed, Hymowitz said. This seeming social progress, she said, has had unintended effects of telling boys and men that their contributions to family life and the household economy are of no great consequence.

“Why study, plan, show up for work on time, or go to work when you’re sick of your boss if no one is depending on you, and no one cares?” Hymowitz said.

Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan economics and public policy professor, said the most successful marriages are those in which mothers and fathers share the joys and tasks of bringing up children. College educated women were once the least likely to marry, but now are the most likely to be married as well as divorce at lower rates.

In marriages of equality, fathers are spending more time with their children, and are more engaged parents, including changing diapers, giving bottles, driving kids to and from school and going to doctor’s appointments, she said.

“Modern families do have a role for fathers,” Stevenson said. “Fathers, I think, are playing a bigger role than they’ve ever played in American families.”

Stevenson said government policies that could help support families include ensuring mothers survive childbirth, noting the U.S. has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world, and it continues to rise. She also listed paid family leave, affordable early childhood education, raising the minimum wage and expanding the child tax credit.

Rashawn Ray, a University of Maryland sociology professor and fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the traditional family arrangement of a father working outside of the home and a mother staying home with the kids seems to be reserved for very high earners. Middle-income and low-income families can’t afford this lifestyle choice.

Parents, he said, don’t really “balance” work and family.

“Rather, they juggle their various responsibilities and frequently pray they do not drop or break anything,” Ray said.

Overall, families are surviving, but they are floundering, he said. Resources and safety nets that were available in the past don’t exist now for a majority of families.