Levi’s Story
Retreating from marriage in America


A study on “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America” was published Monday by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the project, talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what the study says, what it means, and what we should and can do about the retreat.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why are “moderately educated” Americans abandoning marriage?

W. BRADFORD WILCOX: Moderately educated Americans (Americans with a high-school degree but no four-year college degree — 58 percent of the adult population today) have traditionally constituted the backbone of the American family. Until recently, these middle Americans were more likely to get married, to value marriage, and to be involved in institutions such as churches and other civic organizations that lent direction and stability to their marriages.

No more. In the last three decades, nonmarital childbearing, divorce, low-quality marriages, and family instability have all been on the rise in middle-American homes. For instance, nonmarital childbearing among women with high-school degrees more than tripled in the last three decades — from 13 percent in 1982 to 44 percent in 2006–2008.

Why? Over this same period, the cultural, civic, and economic foundations of marriage in middle America have been eroding. Middle Americans are markedly less likely to attend church, to embrace what I call a marriage mindset, and to hold down stable, decent-paying jobs than they were 40 or 50 years ago. And “When Marriage Disappears” finds that all of these trends help to account for the retreat from marriage among middle Americans.

LOPEZ: How is this affecting their lives?

WILCOX: Among adults in middle America, family breakdown inhibits the accumulation of assets, increases stress and depression, and raises the mortality rate — especially among men. So, the health, wealth, and happiness of middle Americans is taking a serious hit.

Among children in middle America, family breakdown typically doubles delinquency, drug use, psychological problems, and teenage pregnancy. Children who grow up without two married parents are also significantly less likely to do well in school, to graduate from college, and to hold down a steady job later in life. 

Thus, the retreat from marriage in middle America is taking a marked toll on millions of adults and children around the nation.

LOPEZ: How is this affecting American life?

WILCOX: We are now witnessing the emergence of a “separate and unequal” marriage regime in American life, where highly educated and more affluent Americans are enjoying comparatively stable, high-quality marriages at the same time that middle Americans, as well as Americans in poor communities, are seeing their marital fortunes fall. This leaves middle Americans doubly disadvantaged — they have fewer material resources and weaker families, compared with their highly educated peers.

As importantly, we are witnessing the emergence of a whole new class of communities — especially in rural and small-town America, and the outer suburbs — where scores of children and young men are growing up apart from the civilizing power of marriage and a stable family life. (Think of Levi Johnston, minus the access to the money his temporary fame has brought him). This does not bode well for the economic and social health of these communities.