Some readers may be scratching their heads at this point. That is understandable. No reasonable person could claim that the institution of marriage is healthy in America today. It has been declining for some time, particularly among the poor. Charles Murray has documented this quite dramatically in his recent bestseller, Coming Apart, which examines marital trends in America from 1960 through 2010. Murray’s analysis shows that wealthier and better-educated Americans became highly divorce-prone in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. After that period, marriage made a modest recovery in this demographic, which gradually became less tolerant of divorce and cohabitation. Today marriage is still an institution of great social significance among the elite, and college-educated women who bear children overwhelmingly do so within the bonds of wedlock.
For the poor and less educated, the story is quite different. Among this demographic marriage declined in the 1970’s, and then declined further. There has been no recovery. We now live in a world in which approximately a third of prime-age working class men have never married, and women without a high school education are substantially more likely to have a child out of wedlock than in it.
The social consequences of this cultural shift have been grim, especially for children. As Murray points out, the children of married, biological parents who are living together have the best chance to thrive and succeed in life, according to virtually every measurable indicator. For poor children in America, the decline of marriage has been nothing short of catastrophic. Murray regards it as the single most significant dividing line between the privileged elite and the struggling underclass in an increasingly class-segregated United States.
These are sobering facts. Still, the social dissolution comes with a silver lining. Americans may be inept at making their marriages work, but most now agree that it is worth trying. This is particularly true among the rich and educated, who have the most influence on our cultural institutions. Far from sneering at marriage as a repressive and bourgeoisie institution, they have become enthusiastic advocates.