“Marriage is on the wane . . . no amount of wishful thinking will bring it back,” says Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution in her new book, Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage.
Sawhill goes on to explain the major shift in attitudes about sexual relationships since the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Marriage is no longer the foundation for sex and childbearing it once was. Marriage has declined substantially in lower-income and working-class America. With the breakdown of marriage, unwed childbearing has jumped dramatically. Today, over 40 percent of births are to single women, compared to less than 10 percent in the 1960s.
However, for certain demographics, the unwed birth rate hasn’t changed much. Ninety percent of children born to college-educated women are born to married mothers. Yet, for the other two-thirds of America, the link between marriage and childbearing has weakened substantially. Over 60 percent of births to mothers without a high school diploma and about 55 percent of births to mothers with only a high school education take place outside of marriage.
As research shows and as Sawhill writes, children in single-parent families are far more likely to be poor. They are also at risk for a host of other negative outcomes. Because unwed childbearing is occurring most often among mothers with a high school diploma or less, children in single-parent homes are often at great disadvantage. Not only do they lack the benefits of a parent’s higher education and the greater income that generally comes with it, but they also lack the benefits of a stable family that marriage provides. “Today’s children are paying a price for the new choices afforded their parents,” Sawhill says.
So what is to be done? “Will we ever see a return of the old model or has marriage as we once knew it gone forever?” Sawhill asks. “What might take its place? Can the needs of children be reconciled with the new freedoms afforded to adults?” No, marriage isn’t coming back, she says, at least not for the vast majority of America, and it’s time to find an alternative. The way to protect children in today’s culture of sexual freedom, she argues, is by attempting to further disconnect adults’ sexual relationships from childbearing. She argues that this can be accomplished through a full-throttle promotion of new and better birth control methods that would allow adults more effectively to delay childbearing. However, steering society further away from marriage will not help reconnect men and women, fathers and mothers, to one another and to their children. What’s needed instead is a greater emphasis on restoring a culture of marriage.
Is “Planned Parenting” As Good As Marriage?
Sawhill believes that “we may have reached a tipping point” of unwed births. Now “something must take [marriage’s] place.” She proposes replacing the norm of married parenting with a new norm: waiting to have a baby until you are “ready.”
“Social norms that used to stigmatize unwed parenting now need to stigmatize unplanned parenting,” she writes. The way to accomplish planned parenting is by disconnecting sex from childbearing, to “change the default from having children to not having children until you and your partner want them and are both ready to be parents.” She posits that the disconnection of sex from childbearing can be accomplished through “new low-maintenance and long-acting forms of birth control.” These types of birth control require people to “opt-in” to parenting (for example, by having a doctor remove an intrauterine device), rather than “opt out” (by remembering to take a daily birth control pill).
But “planned parenthood” is a poor replacement for marriage. Sawhill’s plan to promote long-acting birth control fails to address the core problem of unwed births: the breakdown of relationships between men and women in lower-income and working-class America. Those in the higher income portions of the population continue to participate in marriage at high rates and to reap its benefits. Officially lowering the bar for the other two-thirds of America would put more people at risk for the consequences of family breakdown.
As David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values wrote recently in response to Sawhill, “abandoning marriage as a social standard will do nothing to address the actual problems caused by the weakening of marriage. . . . An abundance of evidence tells us that marriage matters, whether we say so or not.” He also notes, “Individual responsibility doesn’t begin and end with the individual—it also depends for its success on social institutions that encourage and guide it.”
Marriage provides stability unlike that of any other human relationship. Marriage connects parents, particularly fathers, to their children. One major reason children in married-parent homes are so much less likely to be poor—80 percent less likely—is because the father and his income are connected to the child.
And marriage provides more than money. Children raised by their married, biological parents are more likely to thrive and to avoid behaviors that would hinder their ability to succeed. Children from married-parent homes do better academically, and are less likely to go to prison or participate in negative behaviors like early sexual activity. Other family forms like cohabitation don’t deliver the same benefits.
Men, Marriage, and Fatherhood
Sawhill’s strategy leaves all responsibility on the woman. It says a woman can have a baby when she is “ready,” but it says nothing to a man about making a lifelong commitment to that woman and that baby. It also perpetuates a culture of anything-goes sexuality that contributes to poorer marital quality.
George Akerlof and Janet L. Yellen wrote in 1996 for the Brookings Institution about how the proliferation of the birth control pill facilitated the lowering of the expectation that a man should marry a woman if she became pregnant. They explained:
By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.
Many men have changed their attitudes regarding the responsibility for unplanned pregnancies. As one contributor to the Internet wrote recently to the Dads’ Rights Newsgroup, “Since the decision to have the child is solely up to the mother, I don't see how both parents have responsibility to that child.”
It is doubtful that promoting the newest version of birth control would somehow reconnect fathers to their children. Really, the problem is not that there hasn’t been enough focus on birth control, but that there hasn’t been enough focus on marriage.
Sawhill is correct that it would be a difficult task to restore marriage in communities where it has dwindled. Yet giving up on marriage would mean giving up on the institution that best facilitates child and adult well-being. And there is much left undone in efforts to strengthen marriage.
Informing people is an important first step. Most people in the United States know that “smoking kills” and to “buckle up for safety,” but how many Americans—particularly those among whom unwed childbearing is most common—know that children born outside of marriage are five times as likely to be poor? That unwed births are the number one driver of child poverty? The social silence surrounding these issues is deafening.
Another step would be to make policy marriage friendly. Many of the approximately eighty means-tested federal welfare programs include a marriage penalty: individuals receive more benefits if they choose to remain unmarried than if they wed. These marriage penalties can be quite substantial. Unfortunately, eliminating marriage penalties overnight would be extremely costly. However, one simple way to ease the marriage penalty would be to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for married couples with children.
Sawhill notes that institutions of civil society would have to get involved if a restoration of a marriage were to occur. Indeed, civil society is crucial. Leaders at every level must engage in efforts to strengthen marriage in their communities.
Why There’s Hope for Marriage in America
There are reasons why there is hope for marriage in America. First, people haven’t given up on it. Most Americans, nearly 75 percent, between 18 and 34 are either married or say they want to get married, according to a 2013 Gallup survey. Also, 80 percent of female high school seniors and 70 percent of male high school seniors say that having a good marriage and family life is extremely important to them.
A marriage culture has much to offer. Not only is marriage good for children, but it is also good for adults. Married individuals are healthier, live longer, are less likely to abuse alcohol, have higher household incomes, and invest more. People have stronger marriages when they follow a course towards marriage, versus a path of sexual experimentation that our culture emphasizes: those who wait until marriage to have sex, who only cohabit with the person they marry, and who have children only after marriage enjoy higher quality marriages and are less likely to divorce.
No, marriage won’t be restored overnight, and unwed childbearing rates probably won’t drop dramatically any time soon. However, change most certainly won’t take place if we turn our backs on these problems.
It will take much more than “wishful thinking” to strengthen marriage in the United States. It will take significant effort and engagement from every level of society. However, replacing the standard of married parenting with a lower standard would leave many Americans—those who could benefit the most from the stability and strength that marriage provides—without the vital benefits of marriage. Marriage creates the foundations of stable homes and societies, and it helps humans to thrive. We can’t simply give up on that—and we won’t.