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 eye.
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 latest report.
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 getting married.
“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.
“There are reasons to be grateful and joyful,” McCord said, “but there’s no reason to sit around and do nothing.”
With 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.”
One 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.”
He’s confident the effort will succeed.
“I 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.”
For 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.