For the first time in history, less than half of Americans now live in married-couple households. The new finding by the Census Bureau reflects the most profound change in the nature of American society ever to have occurred, yet practically no one talks about it. Only 48 percent of American households are made up of married couples. These numbers reflect a sea change in living arrangements. In 1950, married couples were 78 percent of all households.
Some of these figures reflect our aging population: We have more widows and widowers than at any time in the past. But they also reflect changing mores. People are marrying at older ages, and larger numbers are choosing not to marry at all, not to stay married, and to have children outside of marriage. A new Gallup poll shows that more people now approve of both out-of-wedlock births and divorce. Only 41 percent of Americans believe it is morally wrong to bear a child outside marriage, and a mere 23 percent think divorce is morally wrong.
What all this means is that increasing numbers of children are growing up without two parents, and few policymakers seem to care, even though the societal consequences bode ill for the future. Myriad studies have documented that children who grow up without two parents are more likely to do worse in school, drop out, commit crimes, and earn less during their lifetimes than those who are raised with both parents, even adjusting for economic status and race. They are also far less likely to have stable relationships and marriages as adults, thus fueling the cycle of marriage breakdown.
Perhaps the most alarming result of this family breakdown comes from a new analysis of longitudinal data from a large cohort of young children -- primarily bright, white children born to middle-class and affluent parents -- who were followed throughout their lives. The study found that even relatively privileged children suffered when their parents divorced. According to researchers Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, the children of divorce had an average lifespan five years shorter than those whose parents stayed married.
And children of divorce aren't as bad off as children whose parents never married, who now make up the vast majority of African-American children, and a growing number of Hispanic and working-class white children.
So what are policymakers doing about the problem? Not much. Indeed, the rare discussions that take place on public policy toward marriage focus on whether gay couples should be allowed to marry. But that's hardly the biggest issue. However individuals feel about gay marriage, the real threat to the institution of marriage is one posed by the decline in the institution among heterosexuals.
There isn't much government can do to encourage people to marry; but for the last 40 years, government has been heavily implicated in encouraging divorce. All states now have no-fault divorce laws, which make it easier to dissolve a marriage contract than a cellphone contract. One thing policymakers could do is revisit the ease with which we allow couples -- especially those with minor children -- to dissolve their marriages.
A new group, the Coalition for Divorce Reform, is trying to do just that. Chris Gersten, a former Bush administration official and my husband of 44 years, started the organization -- and he is joined by many of the leading marriage and divorce experts in the country. They are working together to promote legislation that will require divorcing couples to take research-based skills-training programs, which have been shown to reduce divorce. The aim is to help those couples in low-conflict marriages if they have minor children and neither partner has engaged in physical abuse or is addicted to drugs or alcohol. More information can be found online at www.divorcereform.info.
This effort may not rescue the institution of marriage from the peril it's in, but it's a start. New research tells us that 30 percent of divorcing couples say they would be willing to reconcile if there were low-cost approaches to saving their marriages available.
In the end, it's the children who pay for the devastating effects of divorce. It's time we start putting our kids first.