For years, family diversity advocates preached the gospel of despair: In a nation dedicated to the progressive drama -- each generation better off than the last -- elite voices counseled, for reasons of their own, that this one problem was intractable, stubborn, impossible to reverse. Best (they urged us) just to ignore the fact that half or more of our children grow up in fatherless homes, and get on with the business of making the world a better place for single moms.
But in the last few years, there have been unmistakable hints of a marriage turnaround. Divorce rates have dropped modestly. Illegitimacy, while still inching upward, has leveled off. Married people today may be less committed to lifelong marriage than they were 50 years ago, but recent studies suggest they are more committed to marital permanence than their parents were 20 years ago. Has the marriage movement made a difference? Are more children today growing up in intact families, with their very own married mothers and fathers?
Some studies say yes, others no. The reason the debate has gone on so long is that the Census Bureau, despite repeated pleas from scholars and reformers, refuses to analyze and release the data it collects in this form. The Census Bureau will tell you how many kids live in a "two-parent" family. But officially the census refuses to address the question: How many children are living in intact families, with their own married biological or adopted parents?
At a fascinating Health and Human Services-funded conference last week in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Poverty Center, we finally got the answer. And the news is good. The analysis of the National Survey of America's Families (a survey of 40,000 nationally representative families) was done by Urban Institute scholars Gregory Acs and Sandi Nelson:
Between 1997 and 2002, the proportion of children under 6 living in intact married families actually increased. So did the proportion of all children in low-income households (the bottom quarter) by close to 4 percent.
It's encouraging evidence that the apostles of despair are wrong: The decline of marriage is not inevitable. Social recovery is possible. In fact, it is under way
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.
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