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Bad News: So Do Marriage Rates
BY PHILIP S. MOOREREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON — There’s something in
the latest government marriage and divorce numbers for everyone to have
something to talk about.
But when it comes to drawing
conclusions about what the data mean, both experts and advocates are calling
for caution. They’re warning there might be far less to them than meets the
Following a long-term trend that has
seen the rate decline by more than half since 1981, divorce in the United
States has hit a 36-year low, dropping to 3.6 per 1,000 Americans in 2006,
according to the May 4 National Vital Statistics Report, compiled for the
Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
However, so has the marriage rate,
the report noted. It skidded downward at twice the rate of divorce, declining
by slightly less than one third over the last 25 years to 7.3 per 1,000, in the
In his widely published news article
on the new numbers, Associated Press national writer David Crary surveyed
approximately two-dozen academics, “who noted about three or four different
significant factors beyond the raw number of divorces,” he said.
Citing a tenfold increase in
cohabiting non-married couples, some said it was a sign that fewer people were
“Others point to falling divorce
rates among the more educated subsection of the population, and call it a
positive trend,” Crary said.
Whatever their perspective, they’re
“painting in broad strokes.”
Maggie Gallagher, president of the
Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, is trying to provide more detail. She
said sociologists have been studying the statistics since the 1980s, and they
see a breakdown in the traditional link between love, sex, marriage and babies.
Agreeing that the less their
education, the more likely it is that couples will either divorce or forgo
marriage altogether, she said it’s not just the poor and their children being
affected. “This is making itself felt across a broad swath of Middle America.”
Gallagher said, “One third of births
and something like 45% of first births are outside of marriage,” and it’s
getting worse, “with stable marriages and families becoming a secret handshake
passed on by parents to their children.”
Because women who say religion is
very important to them are more likely to marry, less likely to cohabit without
marriage, and more likely to have a first marriage that lasts a lifetime,
according to the statistics, Gallagher said religions have a special obligation
to take the lead in finding solutions.
“All faith communities need to focus
on finding solutions and taking a lead in directing public policy,” she said.
“They also need to emphasize it through teaching and preaching.”
If they don’t, Gallagher warns, everyone
will lose, including religions.
“If families can’t stay together,”
she said, “they won’t transmit culture to the next generation, including the
culture of faith, itself.”
Calling the latest marriage and
divorce numbers “the good news within the bad news,” Patrick Fagan is even more
emphatic. He is the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for family and
cultural issues, and he said the only way to overcome the breakdown in marriage
and family is “for Christians to live what their faith teaches.
“Christianity is pretty radical in
its call for abstinence before marriage and fidelity afterwards,” he said, but
if the churches don’t take a stand, “insisting that people live the way God is
calling them to live, you can forget about it as public policy.”
Richard McCord, director of the
Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth for the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops, is among those who agree with the need for concern, but
cautions that the crisis may be exaggerated. Of the six major factors affecting
the family — marriage, divorce, cohabitation, single-parent families, decline
in the number of households with children and teen attitudes — none is
positive, but neither are they headed in an entirely negative direction.
The U.S. Census Bureau confirms
this. Data for 2006 still shows more than 62% of Americans over age 18 are
either married or widowed. By comparison, single parent families are 8.2% of
the total, and cohabitation, which surged in the 1960s and has continued to increase in recent years, still accounts for only
4.2% of households, with marriage still likely within five years for more than
two-thirds of them.
are reasons to be grateful and joyful,” McCord said, “but there’s no reason to
sit around and do nothing.”
people marrying older, he said “it stands to reason the divorce rate would be
lower.” However, as long as the marriage rate keeps declining and the
cohabitation rate continues to rise, “there’s a reason to raise awareness about
the gap and take the initiative in trying to close it.”
of the ways has been the Healthy Marriage Initiative, sponsored by the
Department of Health and Human Services. Another has been the National Pastoral
Initiative for Marriage, coordinated in the nation’s dioceses by the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops. McCord said, “Through it the bishops are trying
to encourage commitment to marriage, making resources available to local
pastoral leaders who are making marriage a priority.”
confident the effort will succeed.
don’t have a crystal ball, but marriage is always the preferred path in life,”
McCord said. “So, I don’t see it going out of fashion.”
the future, McCord said the challenge for the Church is to continue to assist couples
to understand how to preserve their commitment to each other. “We can help them
sustain that, providing a healthy and viable image of marriage,” and through
it, “finding grace and a pathway to God.”
Philip Moore is based
in Vail, Arizona.