Category Archives: families

Marriage Declines – Who’s Responsible?

The traditional American family has been under scrutiny lately because it seems to be in decline. Unmarried people over 18 now represent 44% of the adult population. An online article says that “In US Proportion Married at Lowest Recorded Levels.” The drop has been most obvious among young adults aged 25-34. “More young couples are delaying marriage or forgoing marriage altogether,” says the article. This article suggests that the economy and housing market may play a role.
The number of cohabiting couples rose 13% in one year’s time, says an article in USA Today, from 6.7 million to 7.5 million which is also, they believe, caused by the recession. The % of couples in which both partners are employed dropped significantly. Wikipedia says the number of cohabiting couples is 10 times greater now than it was in 1960, which suggests this trend is not only related to the current recession. Another astonishing fact in the Wikipedia article says that one in every four American households is occupied by someone living alone.
Facts like this definitely make you wonder what is going on with the traditional American family. I do not believe, as some Republicans have recently suggested that liberal Democrats are responsible for this transformation and that it is a symptom of the overall moral decline of American that we can expect to gain force if we reelect Obama. The American family has been in “decline” for some time and we all can list what we believe are some of the reasons for this. Obviously, the discovery of the “pill” which gave contraception such a convenient and effective form is one of the factors we would name.
I don’t believe we can lay responsibility for the pill at the feet of the Democrats. I am guessing women were the driving force in the almost universal and rapid adoption of the birth control pill, although many men also found things to like about the pill. We all suspect that the women’s liberation movement has played a part in changing our dependence on the family unit. Women with a good education and a good job change the age-old balance between the male (hunter-gatherer) and the female (housekeeper) in a marriage. I don’t think we can blame the women’s movement on the liberal Democrats either although many women probably found refuge in the Democratic Party.
I called up a paper on the internet from the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 21, No.2, Spring 2007, pp. 27-52 entitled “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers.
They agreed with us about the first two items we list as factors that changed American families. They remind us that the family is not a static institution. They include a few more factors in the list of things that are changing families. They believe that household technology played a role, freeing women from housekeeping duties by making these duties less time-consuming. Changes in wage structures have played a role they say. Women make more money and are therefore changing the old hunter-gatherer and housekeeper model perhaps to a leisure and consumption model. Whether we get what that means or not I think we can accept that higher wages have made women less dependent on men in a marriage. They also give credit to the arrival of the “unilateral” or no-fault divorce in which partners could separate without giving a reason. And finally they mention that there have been changes in the marriage market, or in the way we meet our spouses. These changes represent to me the huge cultural shift that began in the 1960’s or perhaps even during WW II.
When a culture makes such a cataclysmic shift it is often difficult to find all the threads of change that caused the culture, which usually moves with a sort of glacial slowness, to make a more rapid jump, perhaps more comparable to an earthquake. Were the roots in World War II when women had to go to work? Can we lay the blame at the feet of Rosie the Riveter? Were the roots after the war when women did not all leave the marketplace and go back to keeping houses? Was it because women began to attend college in larger numbers and across social classes? Can we blame the Vietnam War because it turned people into activists who sang antiwar songs and took drugs and made up slogans like “make love, not war”?  Changing a social institution as ingrown as the traditional family probably took all of the above.

Stevenson and Wolfers say the family unit is still doing well among the wealthy, the happy and the healthy. Families with a high earning potential specialize in market production. Those with a “love of fun” benefit from shared leisure and consumption and those with good health gain from greater longevity of their marriage. This is supported by data that suggests that marriage rates are higher for those with high incomes and higher levels of education.

I can see that some Republicans are yearning for the certainties of the past. I can see that they believe the roots of the traditional family are Biblical and therefore sacred. I can see that they feel that “liberal” Democrats backed all of these social changes that have had such powerful effects on the American family. I am sure not all of the support for these social changes came from Democrats. People made personal, not party line choices about what they supported or didn’t. Some of this cultural change was so fast and so powerful that we were swept away by it and really had little choice in the matter. Change happened, with or without our approval. That the dividing line between marriage and cohabitation or single parenthood seems to be forming around the economic resources available to a couple and therefore are dividing along “class” lines.

I don’t think that we will be able to turn back the clock on this stuff, put the genie back in the bottle, no matter how unsettling it is. We could make an American Theocracy and legislate ourselves back to the past, but it would not yield the America that Republicans really want. It would not be the America our forefathers brought to life and it would be a static and sorry bargain. All traditional marriages were not marriages made in heaven. Many women became slaves of abusive or controlling husbands and found it almost impossible to leave the marriage.
Republicans are correct in saying that there is no precedent for these changes in the Bible and so we lack a blueprint about how to hang on to morality given these stunning new social developments. However, we can continue to be moral. We can always be guided by The Golden Rule. There is no doubt that morality will not have the comfort of the ancient formulas to guide it, except it will. The same rules that are given to Christians in the Ten Commandments exist in almost every religion. We do see many cultural issues resulting from these changes to family structure and we see that a number of these changes are not positive. Overcoming the difficulties this has caused for our children is perhaps one of our greatest areas of concern. We can probably expect that families will keep changing. In fact we are seeing the influx of a number of “non-traditional” American families as states pass laws allowing same-sex marriage. This development will actually increase the marriage statistics in America and may even make more traditional marriages popular again. Our families are not done changing and the cultural landscape may be totally different in regard to social “family” units fifty years from now. The rules of morality, of basic human decency, if we stick to the basics, will not change that much.