WASHINGTON — The “national retreat” from marriage could worsen social divides between the married and unmarried, according to one scholar who says religious groups’ failure to reach the working class bears part of the blame for the plummeting marriage rates.
“We have seen that Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have not been successful in reaching poor, working-class Americans and bringing them into the pews on a regular basis, particularly men,” William Bradford Wilcox, director of the University of Virginia’s (UVA) National Marriage Project, told CNA.
Wilcox said that religious communities, which have provided a significant source of community support for marriage, bear some responsibility for trends such as the decline in marriage rates.
He suggested churches need to “be more intentional in figuring out what kind of messages and ministries will be more effective in drawing working-class and poor Americans back into the fold.”
A study from the Urban Institute suggests that among women in the “Millennial” generation (those born from 1980 to 1990), less than 70% will marry by age 40 at the present marriage rate. If the downward trend in marriage rates continues, even fewer will marry. Even if marriage rates rebound, fewer women will be married than those of previous generations.
By comparison, 91% of women were married by age 40 in 1990, 87% in 2000 and 82% in 2010.
The Urban Institute also found a divergence in marriage rates according to race and education. The study’s authors project “steeper decreases” in marriage rates for Hispanic women and non-Hispanic black women, compared to non-Hispanic white women. Fewer than half of non-Hispanic black women and men will have married by age 40, in one projected scenario.
Those without a four-year degree will face “much steeper decreases in marriage.” Millennials who have graduated college are “either slightly less or no less likely to marry than the generation preceding them.”
Wilcox voiced concern that the decline in marriage is concentrated among “less educated and more economically insecure Americans.”
“We’re going to see a growing social divide in America in part because of the retreat from marriage.”
He said that young adults are “more likely to flourish emotionally and socially when they are married.”
“We know that kids are more likely to thrive educationally, economically and socially when they are raised in a married household,” he said. “And we know that the nation’s retreat from marriage is a significant contributor to family inequality in America.”
Wilcox said that both conservative and liberal explanations for the decline in marriage have merit.
“Conservatives will argue that this trend is rooted either in poor public policies that have a tendency to undercut marriage or in cultural shifts, for instance, expressive individualism or feminism,” he said.
“I think progressives tend to point the finger at economic changes that have made working-class and poor men's job prospects bleaker.”
Marriage is similarly unpopular across the Atlantic. The numbers of weddings are at historic lows in France and have significantly decreased in Italy, Ireland, Poland and Portugal, as well as in other European countries, the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reports.
Antonio Golini, chairman of Italy’s National Institute for Statistics, told the British newspaper that the fall is “very significant” and “beyond all expectation.”
He said the decline is due to cultural causes like the fact that many young people live together without marrying. He said there are also economic factors, such as wariness of a costly wedding celebration during a time of economic crisis.
About half of Europeans aged 18-30 still live with their parents, in part due to a lack of employment, high debt and high property costs. Many no longer see the need for marriage, favoring a life without commitment. In France, many choose civil partnerships as an alternative to civil marriage.
Teresa Castro-Martin, a research professor in population studies at the Spanish National Research Council, said a lack of stable jobs and credit harms family formation.
The average age for a newlywed man is now 37.2 years, an increase of 10 years since the 1980s.
Castro-Martin told the Guardian, “Marriage has traditionally been a rite of passage to adulthood, but it has lost its centrality.”