Good news about marriage

Posted: Sep 10, 2003 12:00 AM
For marriage nuts, the big question lately has been: Are things getting a little bit better, or are they still getting worse and worse?

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

The less good news is that part of the shift away from single mothers was into cohabiting rather than married families. A study by Sara McLanahan and colleagues, also reported at this conference, suggests "children born to cohabiting mothers are reportedly more aggressive, more withdrawn, more anxious/depressive, and have more overall behavior problems at age 3 than children born to married parents." Part, but not all, of this difference can be explained by characteristics of the mother (including age and mental health status).

The last afternoon of this groundbreaking conference was devoted to public policy implications: What can government do? Professor Steven Nock of the University of Virginia has new research suggesting that the counseling requirement in covenant marriage helps deter divorce. Professor Frank Furstenberg, skeptical of the possibility of encouraging unmarried parents to marry, urged a new focus on divorce interventions among high-risk low-income families.

Professor Ron Mincy at the Columbia School of Social Work urged including more African-Americans among providers of pro-marriage interventions. He made a strong case for focusing on discouraging unmarried childbearing as a necessary prelude to building a stronger marriage culture among the poor. When unmarried childbearing is common, spouses bring children from multiple partners into the marriages, complicating enormously the task of building stable, healthy marriages.

New ideas, new criticism, new energy, new initiatives. Whether or not it ever passes the Congress, we have a lot for which to thank President Bush's marriage promotion proposal. Now that the marriage turnaround has started, the question becomes not, is it possible to strengthen marriage? But how do we keep the good news going?