By Robert F. Sanchez, JMI Policy Director
Posted Thursday, December 15, 2011
A new study from the Pew Research Center confirms a worrisome trend that has become more and more evident in recent years: The institution of marriage is in trouble in America. Pew says that 50 years ago, when family-oriented sitcoms such as Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver were the norm, some 72 percent of American adults were married. In addition, many of unmarried adults of that era fully intended to marry when they finally found their soul mate.How things have changed! Nowadays, only about 51 percent of U.S. adults are married. Moreover, judging from the media attention to the personal lives of various Hollywood stars and other celebrities, many of the unmarried adults are cohabiting as man and wife without making their status official. Others, it seems, move through numerous marriages and divorces, practicing what some wags have dubbed “serial monogamy.” This leaves them outside of the wedded category much of the time. Still others remain proudly single and permanently unattached. No doubt that has become easier since the stigma formerly attached to being “a confirmed bachelor” or “an old maid” has largely gone the way of the stigma once attached to “living in sin.”Now a fervent libertarian might well argue that the living arrangements of consenting adults are none of the government’s business, and – perhaps surprisingly — some social conservatives would partially agree, arguing that most of the world’s religious faiths regard marriage as a sacred rite rather than a concern of the state. Even so, because of the state’s recognition of marriage as a form of legal contract that can be regulated under the law, the widespread forgoing of the wedding vows raises vexing legal questions ranging from “Who gets the goods when the shack-up breaks up?” to “What about the kids?”Indeed, if families are truly the building blocks of society, the fact that more kids than ever before are now born and raised outside of wedlock – often to “single parents” who struggle to handle their parental responsibilities – has consequences for our society. Many social observers, for instance, trace the rise of destructive youth gangs inAmerica’s urban centers to the children’s lack of a stable family structure. In its absence, a neighborhood gang may become a surrogate family for neglected kids.Then there are the economic consequences. In an era when even two-parent families often struggle to make ends meet on two incomes, doing so on one income is even more of a struggle – and even more likely to lead to dependency on forms of government assistance ranging from food stamps and welfare to subsidized housing and Medicaid.Although the consequences are evident, an easy solution is not. American society is not ready to mandate marriage or forbid divorce, and strictures on cohabitation and adultery have been stricken from the books. Therefore, the only viable solution may be an educational campaign touting the economic and emotional benefits of marriage. Indeed, surveys consistently show that – despite the well-advertised conflicts that lead to matrimonial discord, letters to advice columns, and even domestic violence – married folks are generally happier than single folks.So let’s hope the loft-dwelling ad gurus working in the offices along the famed Manhattan thoroughfare named for James Madison can come up with an effective educational campaign to sell wedded bliss the way they sell sneakers, soda, and soap. Our society’s future well-being may depend on it.