Marriage, the primordial social commitment, is in decline in America — as elsewhere — but not among the university-educated, liberal elite as you might expect. A report out today from the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values shows that the American retreat from marriage is, to quote the lead author of the report, W. Bradford Wilcox, “moving into the heart of the social order: the middle class”. This recent development has profound implications for children, for adults, for the cohesion of society.

When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America is a report that everyone looking for what will inspire commitment among the young and the renewal of society should read in full. MercatorNet here publishes with permission the executive summary of the report as part of our Focus on Commitment and in the hope that many will follow the link to the full report.

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In middle America, marriage is in trouble. Among the affluent, marriage is stable and appears to be getting even stronger. Among the poor, marriage continues to be fragile and weak.

But the newest and perhaps most consequential marriage trend of our time concerns the broad center of our society, where marriage, that iconic middle-class institution, is foundering. Among Middle Americans, defined here as those with a high-school but not a (four-year) college degree, rates of non-marital childbearing and divorce are rising, even as marital happiness is falling. This “moderately educated” middle of America constitutes a full 58 percent of the adult population. When Marriage Disappears argues that shifts in marriage mores, increases in unemployment, and declines in religious attendance are among the trends driving the retreat from marriage in Middle America. This report finds:

Marriage is an emerging dividing line between America’s moderately educated middle and those with college degrees.

Although marriage is still held in high regard across social classes in America, in recent years, moderately educated Americans have become less likely to form stable, high-quality marriages, while highly (college) educated Americans (who make up 30 percent of the adult population) have become more likely to do so.

Marital quality is declining for the moderately educated middle but not for their highly educated peers.

In the 1970s, about 69 percent of moderately and highly educated married adults indicated they were “very happy” in their marriages, whereas only 59 percent of married adults with the least education (high-school dropouts) reported they were very happy. By the 2000s, 69 percent of highly educated married adults still reported that they were very happy, but only 57 percent of moderately educated married adults and 52 percent of the least educated (who make up 12 percent of the adult population) reported the same.

Divorce rates are up for moderately educated Americans, relative to those who are highly educated.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage became less likely for the highly educated (15 percent down to 11 percent), somewhat more likely for the moderately educated (36 up to 37 percent), and less likely for the least educated (46 down to 36 percent).

The moderately educated middle is dramatically more likely than highly educated Americans to have children outside of marriage.

Unwed motherhood. Source: National Surveys of Family Growth / National Marriage Project / Credit: Nelson Hsu/NPR

In the early 1980s, only 2 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage, compared to 13 percent of babies born to moderately educated mothers and 33 percent of babies born to mothers who were the least educated. In the late 2000s, only 6 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage, compared to 44 percent of babies born to moderately educated mothers and 54 percent of babies born to the least-educated mothers.

The children of highly educated parents are now more likely than in the recent past to be living with their mother and father, while children with moderately educated parents are far less likely to be living with their mother and father.

Specifically, the percentage of 14-year-old girls with highly educated mothers living with both their parents rose from 80 to 81 percent from the 1970s to the 2000s, but the percentage of 14-year-old girls with moderately educated mothers living with both parents fell from 74 to 58 percent. And the percentage of 14-year-old girls with the least-educated mothers living with both parents fell from 65 to 52 percent.

Overall, then, the family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.

In an era in which jobs and the economy are the overriding concerns, why should we care about the marriages of Middle America? Marriage is not merely a private arrangement between two persons. It is a core social institution, one that helps to ensure the economic, social, and emotional welfare of countless children, women, and men in this nation.

Today’s retreat from marriage among the moderately educated middle is placing the American Dream beyond the reach of too many Americans. It makes the lives of mothers harder and drives fathers further away from families. It increases the odds that children from Middle America will drop out of high school, end up in trouble with the law, become pregnant as teenagers, or otherwise lose their way. As marriage—an institution to which all could once aspire—increasingly becomes the private playground of those already blessed with abundance, a social and cultural divide is growing. It threatens the American experiment in democracy and should be of concern to every civic and social leader in our nation.

More than a decade ago, The State of Our Unions was launched with the aim of making important contributions to the ongoing national conversation about marriage by tracking the social health of marriage in America. Each issue offers readers updated statistics on marriage and family trends from sources including the US Census Bureau and the General Social Survey, as well as thoughtful commentary on the forces driving those trends and their implications for children and families across the nation. With the release of this year’s issue, When Marriage Disappears, we hope to turn the national conversation toward the state of our unions in Middle America.

When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America is sponsored by the National Marriage project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the New York-based Institute for American Values.

W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.