NEW YORK (AP) — Through two decades of debate on whether America's gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, opponents of such unions depicted their resistance as "defense of marriage." Now, on the cusp of a Supreme Court ruling that could legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, the underlying institution is under scrutiny anew.
Does marriage in America indeed need help? What kind of shape is it in? In simplest terms, the diagnosis is mixed.
Among college-educated, relatively affluent couples, marriage is doing pretty well. Where education and income levels are lower, it's often a different story — higher divorce rates, and far more children being born out of wedlock, including many to single mothers.
There's broad sentiment that this "marriage gap" is unfortunate, but no consensus on what to do about it. Some believe government-funded marriage-promotion programs can make a difference, although their effectiveness has been questioned. Others depict marriage-focused solutions as misguided and say the problems can be eased only by broader economic and social initiatives benefiting all types of households.
"There is no one silver bullet," said David Blankenhorn, head of a centrist think-tank, the Institute for American Values, that focuses much of its work on marriage and families.
Yet despite uncertainty about solutions, he and others believe there is now an opportunity to bridge the left-right split over marriage, particularly in light of the sweeping gains for gay and lesbian couples, which have changed the tenor of the discussion.
For many years, the gay-marriage debate was intertwined with assertions about "traditional marriage" between a man and a woman. A federal act passed in 1996 and a subsequent wave of amendments adopted in many states used the term "defense of marriage" to deny recognition to same-sex unions. Many opponents of same-sex marriage argued that allowing gays to wed would somehow undermine heterosexual marriage.
Such arguments have fared poorly in recent federal court cases. And there's a strong likelihood that the Supreme Court will order the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states in a ruling expected soon. Opinion polls show a solid majority of Americans support it.
"Marriage as culture war in America can now be replaced by marriage as common cause," said a coalition of scholars and civic leaders in their manifesto for a new initiative called Marriage Opportunity.
The group, with Blankenhorn as an organizer, envisions liberals fighting for economic opportunity, conservatives fighting for stronger families and gays who have now won marriage rights for themselves all uniting to confront the marriage gap and to promote "a new embrace of marriage's promise."
Among the scholars chronicling the marriage gap is Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and author of "Labor's Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America."
Cherlin says the gap stems in large measure from the loss of stable, well-paid industrial jobs — consigning legions of young adults to precarious, low-paid jobs, and prompting many to put off marriage even while having children out of wedlock.
In contrast, college-educated young adults are more likely to wait until marriage to have children and then have the prospect of raising them in a household supported by two good incomes. For such couples, Cherlin writes, marriage is a status symbol, and their divorce rates are now much lower than for couples with only a high school education.
According to the Pew Research Center, the share of American adults who have never been married is at an historic high. In 2012, roughly 20 percent of adults 25 and older had never been married, compared to only 9 percent of adults in that age range in 1960. Back then, according to Pew, the likelihood of being married didn't vary according to level of education; now men with advanced degrees are far more likely to have married than those who didn't go beyond high school.
There's a wealth of other data illustrating challenges confronting the institution of marriage:
—Americans are waiting longer to get married. According to the Census Bureau, the current median age for a first marriage — 29 for men and 27 for women — is the highest in more than a century. In 1960, the median age at first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women.
—Unmarried mothers account for 40.6 percent of children born in the U.S., according to the latest Census data. The rate is particularly high in the African-American community — 71.5 percent.
—Even for couples raising children, marriage is increasingly optional. According to the research group Child Trends, there were 3.1 million cohabiting but unmarried couples in the U.S. raising children in 2014, up from 1.2 million in 1996.
Tera Jordan, a professor of human development at Iowa State University, has studied various aspects of marriage and relationships among black Americans.
To the extent that marriage is under siege in their communities, she sees a need for multiple changes — more access to good-paying jobs, better educational opportunities, a lowering of the incarceration rate for young black men. Her advice to young adults wondering about marriage: "Be clear about your goals, be patient. Finish your education."
Long-term, she is optimistic.
"Americans still hold marriage in very high regard," she said.
Before moving to Iowa, Jordan worked with a federally funded marriage-strengthening program in Georgia. In all, according to experts who study the field, more than $1 billion in public funding has been spent since 2005 on an array of marriage and relationship programs.
Yet the effectiveness of these programs remains subject to debate.
For example, there were negative findings in a rigorous study of a federally funded program called Building Strong Families, which taught relationship skills to more than 5,100 low-income, unwed couples who were expecting a child or just had a baby.
The study by Mathematica Policy Research found that after three years, the program had no effect on the quality of couples' relationships and co-parenting skills, and did not make them more likely to stay together or get married.
The largest and most durable state-level program is the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, recently renamed Project Relate. Since its launch in 1999, it has served more than 400,000 Oklahomans — about 10 percent of the population.
Alan Hawkins, professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University, describes it as "the most comprehensive and effective public policy effort to help couples achieve healthy relationships and enduring marriages." It provides relationship education for teens, young adults, unmarried cohabiting parents, engaged couples and married couples.
One of its primary programs, Family Expectations, entails 30 hours of classes for low-income expectant parents, whether married or not, who want to strengthen their relationships. Independent assessments found that couples taking the program are more likely to stay together than other couples. Other research has credited Oklahoma's initiative with a slight increase in the percentage of children living with two parents and a slight decrease in the percentage living in poverty.
Kendy Cox, a senior director of Project Relate, said its annual funding is between $6.5 million and $7 million, mostly from federal welfare appropriations.
Many low-income couples believe in the concept of marriage, Cox said, yet are unsure if it's the right step for them.
"It's become seen as sort of pie in the sky for some couples," she said. "Even if they've already had a baby, they have this sense of, 'I have so much work to do before we can even consider marriage.'"
Among the graduates of Family Expectations is Rachel Chudoba, 27, who now has a job with Public Strategies, the private firm which handles daily management of the marriage initiative.
Chudoba and her then-fiance, Chad — now her husband — were only 19 when they signed up for Family Expectations in 2007.
"We both wanted to do it," Chudoba said. "We were pretty much in agreement that we didn't know what we were doing."
They put in a full day of coursework each Saturday for six weeks, then received periodic coaching over the next two years. They're now parents of a son and daughter.
Chudoba said the communications skills they learned came in handy when Chad, a member of the Army National Guard, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013.
"Our communication was so sporadic — mostly by email," she said. "All the things I was taught were really important in those moments."
Among the lessons she applied, Chudoba said, was learning to take a timeout when an argument flared.
"It's hard to acknowledge that you need a timeout in a conversation when you don't get to talk very often," Chudoba said. "But being separated for a year, you are going to have disagreements, and solving them is difficult."
Chudoba said both she and her husband came from challenging backgrounds — both of Rachel's parents had multiple divorces, while Chad spent time in foster care.
"We didn't have a lot of positive examples of how to have a relationship and how to raise children," she said. "That was a huge thing for me and my husband — not repeating the mistakes of the older generation."
Several members of her extended family are in their early 20s, and wondering where marriage fits in their future. "I see people who are apprehensive," Chudoba said. "I see a lot of looking for answers."
Oklahoma, along with Utah, also has initiated a program seeking to save some marriages by curtailing divorce. Hawkins, the BYU professor, says they are the only states with mandatory education programs for divorcing parents that include specific advice on how to reconcile.
According to Hawkins, about 10 percent of divorcing couples — both husband and wife — still want to save the marriage even near the end of the divorce process.
"Divorce may be easy legally, but it's not easy psychologically — very few people are casual about it," he said. "Even many people experiencing some of the hardest problems — adultery, substance abuse — don't want a divorce and are willing to work hard to solve those problems."
Looking nationally, Hawkins says he understands the widespread skepticism about state-backed marriage programs.
"Success has been modest in relation to the size of the problem," he said. "We don't know what levers we could pull to make a difference."
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Brad Hambrick says he's seen positive results from a mentoring program for young couples at the Summit Church, a Southern Baptist congregation that he serves as pastor of counseling.
Raleigh, he says, has a large population of transients — a status that can be challenging for newly married couples.
"If you don't have that network of parents, aunts, uncles, high school friends, marriage bears much more of the total social weight," he said. "What is expected of marriage becomes much greater — it either winds up being really good or really bad."
He recalls one younger couple in the church's program telling their mentors, "You're the first people who've talked positively to us about marriage."
Among the veteran mentors is Tom Droege, 57, a software developer who has teamed up with his wife, Paula, for more than a decade of counseling younger couples. Part of what they teach is how to handle conflict — including "how to fight fairly," he says.
"What they get from our program is a better understanding of expectations, so that when they run into the typical kinds of challenges that marriage presents, they don't feel that it only happens to them — it's normal."
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