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Social Mobility Memos

Young Americans value commitment over marriage: But can you have one without the other?

Editor's Note:

I’ll be discussing this theme, along with many other findings from the American Family Survey with Chris Karpowitz and Jeremy Pope, the BYU scholars who conducted it, as well as Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, and our own Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach. Sign up here to attend or watch the webcast.

Here are three things that we know for sure:

Marriage: Expression or foundation of commitment?

A big question is how far marriage is an expression or a foundation for this commitment. If committed couples get married, then the marriage is a signal of commitment rather than a cause of it. It looks in fact as if children raised by their long-term cohabiting biological parents do as well as those raised by married natural parents. But these are unusual cases: most parents who are cohabiting at the birth of their child are separated within five years. Most married parents are still together:

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It looks as if the underlying commitment is becoming more prized than the marital institution itself, if the results of this year’s American Family Survey, are any indication. A joint initiative of the Deseret News and The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, the survey polls a representative sample of 3,000 adults. (I am an adviser to the survey team.) Levels of agreement with the statement, “Being legally married is not as important as having a personal sense of commitment to your partner” vary considerably by ideological leaning and by age:

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Liberals are much more likely than conservatives to stress commitment over marriage. But the differences by age are greater among conservatives. In fact, six out of ten conservatives under 30 agree that commitment is more important than matrimony.

Commitment counts, marriage helps

The question is how far the ideal of commitment and the institution of marriage are separable in practice, at least in the U.S. Here, marriage seems to perform an important role, which is not simply either an expression or sole foundation for commitment, but as a “commitment device,” helping couples to stay a course that they have embarked on together. In time, this function may alter, with more couples managing to be committed without being conjugal. This is much more likely if the rate of unplanned births could be reduced. (Which, as Isabel Sawhill has shown, it really, really could.) It is clear that committed, stable parenting provides a foundation for opportunity—whether for single parents or couples. Less certain is the role marriage will play in the future.

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