Politics & Policy

Getting the 60 Percent Married

W. Bradford Wilcox
Renewing marriage in Middle America

About 60 percent of Americans have a high-school diploma but not a degree from a four-year college. Forty-four percent of their children are born outside of marriage. This finding is the focus of “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” the fruit of the annual “State of Our Unions” report compiled by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the project, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what’s going on and why it matters.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Who are the “forgotten 60 percent”?

W. BRADFORD WILCOX: Almost 60 percent of Americans have a high-school degree but not a college degree. We call this group “Middle Americans,” which includes those with some college or an associate’s degree, and it is this group that is driving the key trends in marriage today. Yet their welfare — when it comes to marriage, work, and education — has received practically no attention from politicians, the media, and other observers of American life, even though they make up a majority of the American adult population. This neglect may change in the wake of the recent presidential election, insofar as Republicans have realized the cost of neglecting the welfare of Middle Americans.

LOPEZ: Forty-four percent of children in this group are born outside of marriage? Why does this matter?

WILCOX: It matters for two reasons. First, children born outside of marriage are much more likely to be consigned to a life of family instability, poverty, and educational failure. In a word, they are much less likely to have a shot at the American Dream. Second, we’re at a tipping point with Middle America, insofar as Middle Americans are on the verge of losing their connection to marriage. But they haven’t gotten there yet. If the nation takes the right cultural and policy steps, we can renew marriage in Middle America.#ad#

LOPEZ: What does marriage have to do with “social opportunity”?

WILCOX: Children raised in a stable, intact family are much more likely to benefit from the time, attention, and money of two parents. They are more likely to thrive in school, to steer clear of encounters with the police, to avoid having a teenage pregnancy, to graduate from college, and to be gainfully employed as an adult. Note also that married parents of children born to them are more than twice as likely to remain together, compared with cohabiting parents of children born to them. So, even though some children do just fine in cohabiting, single-parent, or step-parent families, children’s odds of making it in America are much higher if they hail from an intact family where the parents are married.

For instance, a recent Pew report found that “among children who start in the bottom third of the income distribution, only 26 percent with divorced parents move up to the middle or top third as adults, compared to 50 percent of children with continuously married parents.”

It is worth noting here that Senator Marco Rubio has spoken eloquently of the need to close the growing “opportunity gap” between upper-class Americans and Middle Americans. One of the first things the nation needs to do to close this gap is to increase the percentage of children being raised by their own married parents.

LOPEZ: Why do you call these people “Middle Americans,” and how can they best be reached? 

WILCOX: We call them Middle Americans because they hail from the middle of the American class distribution and make up a majority of the population. And, until recently, they have served as the moral and civic backbone of America. In the 1970s, for instance, this group was more likely to attend church than any other group in the country. But now, for both economic and cultural reasons, Middle Americans are falling behind. Middle Americans, especially Middle American men, are losing their connection to marriage, work, religion, and civil society. This doesn’t bode well for the fate of our nation, or for our democratic life together.

LOPEZ: If getting them married successfully is “the social challenge for our times,” why aren’t more of us talking about it, and often?

WILCOX: Because many Americans think that family-related matters such as marriage are “private” and not worthy of public attention, or because they think we should celebrate today’s family diversity. 

LOPEZ: What does this have to do with the fiscal cliff or the economy? 

WILCOX: The breakdown of marriage forces the state to pay more for welfare, education, policing, and incarceration, insofar as children and young adults raised outside of intact, married families are more likely to depend on public services or to engage in criminal behavior, compared to with their peers who grew up in intact, married families. As our report points out, family breakdown costs the taxpayers billions every year. So one reason we’re engaged in deficit spending is that Uncle Sam is having to step into the breach created by families that have been affected by divorce orby the failure of families to form in the first place.#page#

LOPEZ: What is the marriage penalty, and what kind of difference could it make if it were lifted?

WILCOX: Robert Lerman at the Urban Institute estimates that many low-income families face a marriage penalty of up to 25 percent. This is because many of our public welfare programs — e.g., food stamps — are cut off for low-income families whose income rises above a certain threshold. And marriage often means a second earner enters the picture, thus disqualifying many low-income couples from means-tested programs. This means that some couples or single mothers have an economic incentive not to get married. In the report, we detail steps that could be taken to end this penalty. This would shore up the economic foundations of marriage among the poor and send the right signal about marriage to low-income communities where marriage is increasingly rare.#ad#

LOPEZ: Why are tax credits important for families with children?

WILCOX: Raising children is expensive, and well-formed children are a public good. They are the future taxpayers and citizens of the United States. This fact, and the fact that the economic foundations of working-class family life have been eroding since the 1970s, suggests that the nation should do more to shore up the economic foundations of family life in poor and working-class communities. I support tripling the child tax credit to $3,000 per child (and making this amount fully refundable) as one way to help families who are struggling to get by.

LOPEZ: What does the president have to do with this? What could he do about it?

WILCOX: In my view, the biggest thing that President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama could do is to get behind a public campaign to promote married parenthood, much like the campaign the First Lady has conducted on behalf of healthy eating. The Obamas have gone the distance in their marriage, and they could encourage more of their fellow citizens to follow in their footsteps for the sake of kids across this great country of ours. The president could also support efforts to make federal welfare and tax policy more marriage-friendly.

LOPEZ: How can we talk about marriage and divorce without making people feel bad about a marriage that did not work out? 

WILCOX: We have to think about the future. Almost no one hopes that their children will face a future that includes divorce, single parenthood, or some other family difficulty. So, even though many of us adults have made mistakes or failed in marriage, I think we want the best for our children when it comes to their future family. We need to renew a marriage-friendly culture that manages to hold up the ideal of the intact, married family while treating departures from that ideal with grace and sensitivity. Our children deserve no less.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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