Building Strong Marriages, One at a Time

From Rachel Sheffiel:

If healthy marriage is the basis of a strong society, it is worth every effort to strengthen it. Marriage education should supplement other efforts to address social problems.

One of the greatest social problems facing our country is the breakdown of the family, and, more specifically, the breakdown of marriage. Today, over 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage. In the 1960s, that percentage was less than 10 percent. The rate of unwed births is far higher among some groups: nearly three-quarters of African-American babies and over half of all Hispanic babies are born to single mothers annually.

The retreat from marriage and the increased rate of unwed births are tragic in terms of their effects on children and their costs to society as a whole. Children in single-parent homes are more than five times as likely to be poor compared to their peers born to married parents. They are also less likely to thrive: they are at significantly greater risk for dropping out of high school, going to jail, abusing drugs and alcohol, and becoming single parents themselves.

Sadly, however, there is far too little discussion about the growing problem of marital breakdown. This is tragic, not only because its social costs are great, but also because the aspiration of a stable marriage and family remains elusive for so many men and women. Some states, communities, churches, and charities are making efforts to strengthen marriage, particularly marriages among low-income couples. Yet greater effort is required.

Marriage Matters

Marriage provides a host of benefits not only to children, but to men and women as well, including better physical and mental health and increased financial stability. Strong marriages are the foundation of a strong society. A new Harvard study by Raj Chetty and colleagues shows that children—even those from single-parent homes—have greater upward mobility if they are reared in a community with a larger proportion of married-parent families. Also, because marriage is associated with greater financial stability, married-parent families are less likely to depend on government welfare support. Roughly three-quarters—about $330 billion—of welfare spending on families with children goes to single-parent households. The fact that marriage is falling apart, and that it is particularly declining in lower-income communities, have serious consequences for individuals and society as a whole.

While marriage seems to be relatively stable among the highly educated (those with a college education or more), it is floundering in lower-income communities and, increasingly, in “middle America.” For a growing proportion of America, the dream of achieving a successful marriage remains only that: a dream. Among women with less than a high school diploma, 65 percent of births are to single mothers; among those with no more than a high school diploma, the rate is about 55 percent (42 percent among women with some college). In contrast, among college graduates, the rate is not much higher than the overall rate back in the 1960s: about 8 percent. According to my colleague Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation, “The U.S. is steadily separating into a two-caste system with marriage and education as the dividing line.”

Read more: Public Discourse