The new Census Bureau data on marriage — found in the recently-released American Community Survey (ACS) — has produced controversial and misleading headlines about the decline of marriage in America. The New York Times headline declared that married couple households had “slipped into a minority.” They proclaimed that the “Ozzie and Harriet” era had come to a close.
The implication of the headline and the interpretation of the article is that marriage is no longer the foundation for modern society. In fact, the ACS reported that merely 49.7 percent of American households were married couples and that the number had slipped from 52 percent just five years ago.
While it would be easy to counter the report’s major finding with their assertions that the “total number of married couples is higher than ever” and that “most Americans eventually marry,” the trends toward singleness and cohabitation present serious and profound social and economic ramifications. According to the Census Bureau, the number of unmarried heterosexual couples living together has increased 14 percent since 2000. There is ample evidence, too, that couples are waiting longer to get married. And the continued high rate of divorce is equally troubling. In addition, the exaggerations about the numbers of same-sex couples are troubling; according to the ASC, they constitute under one million couples – total!
These trends are nothing to celebrate, but exaggerations and distortions are just as alarming.
One ramification is that the misinterpretations give fuel to the liberal scholars who claim that marriage is overrated in its impact on communities and nations. Many of them believe that any household arrangement works; that “change” doesn’t necessarily mean “decline” or “breakdown” of the family. For instance, Andrew Cherlin, a family expert, states, “The central place of marriage in our family system is eroding.” However, Cherlin doesn’t believe that this is a “cataclysmic change.” Other scholars argue that the changes are “superficial” differences that merely reflect the age we live in.
I would argue that current trends toward changing the family structure are profoundly reshaping American society and that the ramifications of these changes are especially detrimental to the well-being of women and children, who ultimately bear the brunt of such social trends.
When news media distort a report like the ACS, they add fuel to the myths about marriage becoming irrelevant. In fact, researchers across the philosophical, ideological and theological perspectives have come to the same conclusion: any other household arrangement is inferior to marriage. Typically, non-traditional arrangements leave in their wake broken relationships, unstable homes, at-risk children, domestic violence, poverty and a weakened society. These researchers also agree regarding the family structure that is best for children. The whole truth put simply is: marriage is not merely good for kids; it is best for them.
Marriage, while weakened by cultural trends, is still the relationship of choice for most Americans. Even couples who are “living together” typically plan to get married at some point in the future. The trends that undermine marriage are deeply troubling and should not be minimized; I speak and write about these challenges and the impact that they have had in America since the 1960s. The data is clear about the benefits of marriage and its important role for individuals, communities and the nation. As the old saying goes, a little learning is a dangerous thing. There is a mass of honest reporting and research evidence pointing to the fact that family structure is vitally important. One researcher estimates that if family structure had not changed between 1960 and 1998, black child poverty would have been 28.4 rather than 45.6 at the end of that time frame and white child poverty would have been 11.4 percent rather than 15.4 percent.
Wise people understand that marriage produces positive outcomes based on the nature of what men and women need in order to live in harmony: order, stability, continuity, security, community acceptance and support. All these things are provided by marriage with its wedding ceremony and legal recognition.
Note: The American Community Survey can be found at the Web site of the U.S. Census Bureau.