In February, President Obama delivered a speech in Chicago about strengthening the middle class and reducing gun violence. He made an observation that drew little attention but has the potential to bring together gridlocked Republicans and Democrats. The task of rebuilding a strong and secure middle class, he suggested — of rebuilding “the ladders of opportunity for everybody willing to climb them” — does not start with the White House, or the states, or public schools.
It “starts at home.”
“There’s no more important ingredient for success,” President Obama suggested, “nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families — which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood.” Getting personal, he said, “I wish I had a father who was around and involved.”
You don’t have to be a Democrat, or a Republican, to recognize that President Obama is right.
And appreciating the link between a thriving marriage culture and a thriving middle class is especially important because of the crisis of marriage in Middle America today. As an ideologically diverse group of family scholars (including W. Bradford Wilcox) points out in a recent report, “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” when we hear about the decline of marriage in America, we should think especially about the almost 60 percent of Americans who have a high school education but no college degree. These are the people in America’s broad middle who, as the report points out, “once married in high proportions and formed families within marriage.”
But no longer.
According to a report released last week, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America” (also co-authored by Wilcox), 58 percent of first births to Middle American mothers are outside of marriage. By contrast, only 12 percent of first births to college-educated mothers are outside of marriage.
The “Knot Yet” report shows that Middle American young adults still aspire to marriage — about 80 percent say that marriage is an “important” part of their life plans. But before they reach the altar, most are having their first child outside of marriage, often in a cohabiting relationship. Indeed, more than half of nonmarital births to Middle American women are to cohabiting couples.
When Middle Americans do get married, divorce is a reality for too many of them. In fact, 37 percent of Middle American marriages end in divorce within the first 10 years of marriage. By contrast, only 11 percent of college-educated marriages do so.
This should concern us because, as we know from decades of research, children are more likely to thrive when they are raised in an intact marriage. By contrast, children born to unmarried parents or raised in divorced homes are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, use drugs, and/or end up pregnant as teenagers. For instance, one Princeton University study found that boys raised in a home without their father were more than twice as likely to end up in prison before they turned 30, compared with boys raised in an intact, married home with their father.
Threat to social mobility
The fragility of marriage in Middle America threatens to undermine the social mobility and equal opportunity that Americans value so dearly. Kids raised in homes where a revolving cast of caretakers move in and out of their homes, or where their father is absent, are much less likely to graduate from high school, go to college, be gainfully employed, and establish a successful, stable family of their own. And adults caught up in this new cycle of family instability are more likely to struggle with poverty, depression, and substance abuse.
All this has been painfully evident in the southwestern Ohio town where David and Amber Lapp have spent the past couple of years interviewing white, working and middle class young adults about how they form families and view marriage.
On the working-class side of town, rows of modest ranch homes built in the postwar suburban sprawl are nestled into a river valley. Here, the majority of young adults the Lapps interviewed have witnessed the breakdown of their families as they were growing up. These young adults describe resolving that they would give their children the stable family they never knew. As one young woman who grew up in a divorced family put it, “I want to set up the life of the non-divorced for my kids and the future.”
But they also describe entering relationships and being wary, even afraid, of marriage. “Marriage ruins relationships,” was one common refrain. So, they put off or forgo marriage. But most of them go ahead and have children in their early 20s, without the security and stability afforded by marriage. And so they end up repeating their parents’ mistakes.
On the college-educated side of town, the story is different. Across the old railroad tracks (now converted to a paved bike path), and across a muddy brown river, and up a narrow winding road flanked by woods, there are several new subdivisions perched atop the hill. Here, the majority of young adults that the Lapps interviewed grew up in intact, married-parent families. They did not talk about marriage with the wariness of their working-class peers. Even if they were still single, for the most part they expressed confidence that they would get married.
If they were in their late 20s, or early 30s, many of them had followed a sequence that one married 33-year-old salesman described this way: “You date, you get engaged, you get married, and you have kids.”
In other words, the working-class young adults in Middle America are struggling, and often failing, to achieve the good marriage and stable family they grew up desiring. But up the hill, the college-educated young adults find themselves, eventually, on the inside of the strong marriage culture that they inherited from their parents.
Is this the America we want?
The authors of “The President’s Marriage Agenda” suggest that we can do better, and offer a variety of proposals that should appeal to a bipartisan coalition.
President Obama recently called for one of them — ending marriage penalties for low-income couples — in his State of the Union address. There are still numerous disincentives to marriage for people who receive public benefits such as food stamps or housing aid, sending exactly the wrong message about marriage to low-income Americans. And as the report points out, there is an easy way to fix it: For the first few years of their marriage, a couple could receive a refundable tax credit for the amount of their marriage penalty. There is already the technology, an online “Marriage Calculator,” to support this reform.
Other proposals from the report worth considering include expanding apprenticeships so that more young men, in particular, have a surer route to steady work (and then perhaps marriage); passing the Second Chances Act, which would create a one-year waiting period for divorcing couples combined with education about the option of reconciliation; and building upon marriage and relationship skills curriculums that are already being offered to inmates before they re-enter society.
The renewal of a broad and sustainable middle class begins far from the cacophony of the fiscal cliff or sequester debate emanating from Washington. It starts at home, and we hope the president and the Republicans can get behind a marriage and middle class agenda that will strengthen the fragile foundations of family life in America.
W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. David Lapp is a research associate at the Institute for American Values and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America project.