Among the many clear signs of the deterioration of American community and family life, one in particular stands out: Nearly half of all children will spend some time outside of an intact family by their late teens. As detailed in a recent report from the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project, The Demise of the Happy Two-Parent Home, family stability has steadily deteriorated over the past 50 years. The trends this report documents are especially troubling because it is often America’s most vulnerable who experience the greatest family instability today.
Research consistently finds that children raised in an intact family have more positive outcomes than children who are not. A healthy, married-parents home provides children with stability and consistent access to the two parents who gave them life, as well as to the resources those parents provide — financial and otherwise.
But marriage rates in the United States have declined, divorce has increased, and the share of children born outside of marriage has climbed. For example, between 1962 and 2019, the percentage of women ages 15 to 44 who were married dropped from 71 percent to 42 percent. Over roughly this same period, the number of women aged 50 to 54 who had ever divorced increased from 29 percent to 41 percent. Furthermore, the fraction of children born outside of marriage climbed from just 5 percent to a staggering 40 percent.
Trends in family stability are not the same across the board, however. There is a stark divide along economic lines. Highly educated Americans are far less likely to experience family instability than those with less education. For example, among mothers without a college degree, most births take place outside of marriage today, compared with just 20 percent of births among women with low or moderate education levels in 1970. In contrast, only about 10 percent of births to mothers with a college degree occur outside marriage today. Minorities are more likely to experience family breakdown as well.
The stark socioeconomic divides in family stability raise the question of whether economic causes are to blame for family decline. Many researchers argue that declining wages among working-class men since the 1970s have rendered such men less “marriageable.” But while the hourly wages of young men declined from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s, their wages have substantially increased since then, and yet this has not yielded increasing family stability. Moreover, the decline of family stability began prior to the 1970s, when the American economy was booming. And the United States has experienced far more severe economic downturns in earlier eras, such as the Great Depression, without substantial disruptions to family stability.
Instead of economic decline, the explanation for increased family instability may actually be rising affluence, which has loosened moral constraints around sex and marriage, placed a greater premium on personal fulfillment and professional pursuits, and increased the economic independence of women. These changes are not all inherently bad, but they do tend to weaken the family unit. And while the cultural changes facilitated by affluence have influenced everyone, today’s unscripted relationship path — filled with looser, more nebulous commitments — is far riskier for those with fewer resources. While more affluent Americans have the motivation to avoid the pitfalls along the way to marriage — such as unwed childbearing — in order to keep an education and career on track, Americans with fewer resources do not have such opportunity costs.
Government programs for low-income Americans also play a role in family instability. Today’s government welfare system makes it much more feasible to raise a child outside of marriage (albeit still with greater challenge) than in past eras, making it less necessary for fathers to step up to provide for their children. On top of that, the government welfare system actually penalizes marriage, putting up barriers for lower-income couples to wed.
Despite family breakdown, the majority of Americans see marriage and family as an important goal, even though fewer are reaching it. To strengthen America’s families, an array of approaches will be needed, and all hands should be on deck to shore up this vital institution — particularly in communities where family instability is most prevalent.
Congress should work to reduce marriage penalties in government welfare programs while experimenting with work requirements and time limits to encourage independence. States and communities can focus on making marriage and relationship education widespread, as Utah has done through its healthy-marriage initiative. Other approaches to strengthening marriage and the family could include media campaigns on the benefits of marriage, programs to prevent teen pregnancy, and state efforts to provide reconciliation options for couples on the brink of divorce.
Although the trends in family stability are troubling, there is still much that can be done to increase the strength of America’s families. Given what’s at stake for the happiness and well-being of the nation, it’s crucial that we work towards this goal.