Marriage has traditionally been viewed as the bedrock of family and society, the framework within which individuals are nurtured and supported, providing a social safety net for family members. Marriage has lately generated common interest and public concern, and has been recognized by the state as greatly important for our country. And research clearly shows that marriage is beneficial to children, adults, and to our society at large.
Over the past 40 years, however, there has been a shift in the way society views marriage. Theories about this phenomenon abound. And it is somewhat difficult to indict any one source of causality in a dynamic society influenced by a wide range of ethnic, religious, and generational histories, not to mention a powerfully pervasive media culture with varied commentary on marriage and its meaning.
The impact of declining marriage rates on the welfare of our society has become more visible. Sadly, its effects are devastating. With the growing body of research linking declining marriage rates and decreased welfare, it’s impossible to ignore the political and socio-economic factors that impact the institution.
Religious and social conservatives tend to promote marriage and stay-at-home moms as the answer to our welfare crisis. Liberals tend to argue that government can pick up the pieces. Meanwhile, the public has become increasingly acclimated to the idea that the government should care for the disadvantaged.
In the political arena, we see a similar partisan dichotomy, with political leaders catapulting the discussion into extremes: conservatives focus on government rewarding marriage through tax incentives, while liberals tend to promote the expansion of governmental care to help single parents and children. At times, advocates of either approach have vastly exaggerated their capacity to address what is primarily at its roots, a complex cultural issue and social dysfunction.
Whether or not one believes that the government should be involved in promoting marriage at all, the reality is that the government is permanently in the business of trying to address the social consequences of marital and family decline because family breakdown remains the largest source of our nation’s most daunting social problems.
If marriage is the best welfare program we know, then it is worth examining the facts and assessing them with an unbiased eye in order to develop real solutions to social problems. Until we outgrow the extreme and facile notions that government is either evil or the only safety net, and acknowledge that it simply cannot do the work of the family, we will not be able to address workable ways to strengthen the welfare of our society.
This paper explores the interplay between marriage and the welfare of our society. Section One identifies the consequences of the declining marriage rates in relation to illegitimacy, to the extent it can be isolated as its cause. Section Two explores social trends that impact the decline of marriage, including government’s role in displacing marriage and family as the primary social safety net. The third and final section of this paper explores possible public and private solutions to strengthen social ills.
A growing body of research shows the impact and possible causality of the decline of marriage. For the purpose of this paper, I have drawn on a number of resources, ranging from the U.S. Census Bureau to conservative and liberal policy publications, in an effort to bring all the information we have to the table and draw fair and unbiased conclusions about what is occurring today and what can be done with respect to the issue of marriage and the welfare of women and children.
I do not believe we are doomed to a downward spiral. Since who we are as a society is merely a function of agreement, there is hope for us. Whether we are traditional, progressive, liberal, conservative, heterosexual or homosexual, religious or agnostic, we must find a way to put the needs of our children first and find ways to strengthen families, or we will not be the strong America that we once were and still are.