The institution of marriage is alive and well in America’s most privileged communities. In the nation’s poorest communities, marriage is in full retreat, and it has been for some time. What is new, and what is alarming, is that, as W. Bradford Wilcox observes, marriage is also in retreat among Americans in the broad middle — those Americans who’ve finished high school but who haven’t finished college, and who live in small towns, rural communities, and outer suburbs across the country. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of income or education, aspire to marriage.
Though family sociologists are divided on many questions, there is a broad consensus that children are most likely to thrive when they are raised in stable two-parent households. Yet as marriage has declined, a growing number of children are living through family instability that can greatly undermine their well-being. Moreover, new research has found that children from both two-parent and single-parent families are more likely to achieve upward mobility when they hail from communities with a large share of two-parent families.
There is no silver bullet for reversing the decline of marriage. Conservative policymakers can, however, take steps to stem the tide. Ending the marriage penalty associated with means-tested public benefits would be a good first step. Reforming the earned-income tax credit by tying it to individuals rather than households would ensure that when one low-wage worker marries another, neither would experience a loss of income. Expanding the child tax credit to $4,000 would give a boost to married couples further up the income scale. Expanding vocational education and apprenticeships would do much to improve the economic prospects of less-educated men, thus making them more attractive marriage partners.
W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, directs the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. Portions of this essay are adapted from W. Bradford Wilcox, When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America (Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values, 2010).