It is usually assumed that marriage and family are the bedrock on which societies are built. Parents provide the necessities of life for their offspring; parents are children’s first teachers; parents provide an important part of the discipline children need to learn and thrive; parents teach values and appropriate behavior to their children; and the extended family is a source of traditions and values that provide a sense of belonging to something big. But after four decades of fundamental changes in the structure of American families, it is wise to consider the impacts of these changes on subsequent generations and the traditional way of American life.
First, the changes. Here is a succinct summary: between 1970 and 2010, marriage rates declined by nearly 75 percent for 20 to 24 year old women and more than 30 percent for 30 to 34 year old women; nonmarital births increased by over 280 percent; the percentage of women age 35 who are single with children increased by over 120 percent; and about 60 percent of men and women who marry cohabited prior to their first marriage. These are momentous changes in the American way of love, romance, and family formation. The fact that these trends have been going on for four decades, mostly at a fairly steady clip, leads to the conclusion that they are permanent and will be difficult to change.
Policymakers have responded by enacting a number of policies designed to increase the incentives for marriage or to actively encourage marriage. Many of these policies follow the principle that if a behavior is good for individuals and society, policymakers and administrators should make it as easy as possible to engage in the behavior and to reward it. Thus, policymakers have made changes in the tax code, changes in welfare programs, and enacted new marriage encouragement programs designed to help people develop the social skills that facilitate forming permanent relationships. Many of these programs have been evaluated by gold standard research which shows that they have unfortunately produced modest or no impacts. None has led to increased marriage rates, demonstrating how difficult they are to change. More broadly, as the trend data recited above demonstrate, whatever else might be said about these policies, they have not reversed any of the trends in family composition.
As the marriage researcher and popular writer Stephanie Coontz has pointed out, many Americans are adapting to the new rules for marriage, nonmarital births, single parenting, and cohabitation. One of the fundamental changes underlying declines in marriage rates is that women now have paid jobs at a far higher rate and they earn higher wages than in the past. A fascinating statistic in this regard is that while the median earnings of prime-age men (25 to 55), including those who did not work, declined by over 30 percent between 1970 and 2010, prime age women’s median earnings rose by nearly 850 percent. These amazing changes in women’s income reflect, in addition to changes in average wages, the fact that there has been a decline in the share of men who work and an historic increase in the percentage of women who work.
Granted it may be difficult to know whether the increased earnings of women led to less marriage or vice versa, but polls show that young women are determined to have careers and more than a few work so that they and their children won’t be dependent on the income of men. Even mothers with little education and low job skills are much more likely to work than in the past. Never-married mothers – those with the least education and job skills – are more likely now to work than to be on welfare.
Men have had to adapt too. Another of the fundamental changes underlying not just changes in marriage but in American society in general has been a decades-long movement toward gender equity. Not only have women elbowed their way up in the job market, but their husbands and co-habiting boyfriends have had to pick up part of the burden of housework and child rearing. A Pew report published in 2013 found that fathers living with their children spend more than twice as much time doing housework today as in 1965 and almost three times as much time with their children.
The nation’s welfare policy, reformed by accretion over the years beginning roughly in the mid-1980s, with a big explosion in 1996 that encouraged, cajoled, or even forced mothers to leave welfare for work, has greatly expanded benefits for poor working parents, usually mothers. There has been at least a ten-fold increase in payments and benefits for poor working parents through the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, nutrition programs, child care, and other benefits since the 1980s. A mother and children living on welfare cannot escape poverty; low-income working mothers with below-poverty wages can escape poverty by combining her earnings with government’s work support benefits.
Thus, men and women as well as government policy have adapted at least somewhat to the modern status of marriage and childbearing. But an area of great concern remains. Children living with single parents do worse than children living with their married parents. There is now widespread agreement that children living with single mothers are more likely to do poorly in school, to be arrested, to have a teen birth, to have mental health problems, and to go on welfare as adults. They are also four or five times more likely than children living with their married parents to be in poverty. It is one thing for adults to make choices that jumble tradition, but children do not get choices about the composition of their family.
If the trends reviewed here continue, many more children will live in poverty and the development of a substantial fraction of the nation’s children will be disrupted, with consequences for individual children, their parents, the economy, and society. The nation should continue exploring ways to increase marriage rates and reduce nonmarital birth rates. But it seems likely that we will continue to pay a steep price for sacrificing the interests of children to maximize the freedom of adults.