Is marriage obsolete?

The Washington Post reports today:

The proportion of adults who are married has plunged to record lows as more people decide to live together now and wed later, reflecting decades of evolving attitudes about the role of marriage in society.

Just 51 percent of all adults who are 18 and older are married, placing them on the brink of becoming a minority, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census statistics to be released Wednesday. That represents a steep drop from 57 percent who were married in 2000.

Almost as interesting as the decline itself is the current sociology of marriage: Most people with college degrees eventually marry, while fewer than half those with high school educations marry.  W. Bradford Wilcox, head of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said that half of the births to high-school educated mothers are out of wedlock and that the very notion of marriage is fading among the least educated segment of our population.

Manhattan Institute scholar Key Hymowitz called this phenomenon “the Marriage Gap” five years ago in her book Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post Marital Age.

Hymowitz’s book portrayed two Americas, not the two America’s of John Edwards’ rich imagination, but two Americas created by two views of the importance of marriage. College-educated America sees marriage as an indispensable condition for raising children but a less educated and affluent America increasingly does not.

Like many bad things, the devaluing of marriage probably began in the 1960s, American history’s most annoying decade. Who needed “a piece of paper” in the Age of Aquarius? This trend started with the educated and spread to those who could ill afford such social experimentation. But now there is a reversal among those who have been to college. While college-educated mothers are likely to work outside the home, Hymowitz noted, they regard being parents as a job that requires two people: a husband and wife.

As an unmarried woman, I am certainly not going to argue that marriage is essential for everyone. But it is essential for child rearing. Hymowitz found that the children of single mothers on welfare, for instance, hear fewer words than those in educated, two-parent families. (She cited one study that put the the average words heard per hour by a professor’s child at 2,150; for working class and welfare families the number was 1,250.) Single parents speak to their offspring in a way that is “meaner and more distracted."

Hymowitz doesn’t think these parents love their children less, but they have lost the “life script” that includes becoming adults, getting married and forming the next generation.

The fall of marriage does not portend well for civil society—an issue Hadley addressed recently on Inkwell. Where families fail, the role of government (which contributed to the breakup of families in the first place) becomes larger.