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Yesterday Ross Douthat penned—can we still say that?—a column based on the annual report on The State of Our Unions issued jointly by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values .

The report itself contains all sorts of disheartening data.  Above all, the marital behavior of “the moderately educated middle”—high school graduates with perhaps some college, who comprise almost 60 percent of our population—is beginning to resemble more closely that of high school dropouts, rather than that of college graduates.  As the report’s authors put it, in the moderately educated middle, “rates of nonmarital childbearing and divorce are rising, even as marital happiness is falling.”  Consider this piece of evidence:

In the early 1980s, only 2 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage, compared to 13 percent of babies born to moderately educated mothers and 33 percent of babies born to mothers who were the least educated. In the late 2000s, only 6 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage, compared to 44 percent of babies born to moderately educated mothers and 54 percent of babies born to the least-educated mothers.

Everyone is having more babies out of wedlock—one of the fashion trends I expect my daughter to resist—but the most dramatic rise has been in the middle.  Read it again: almost half of the babies born to women with a high school diploma but without a college degree are born out of wedlock.

Rates of cohabitation are up across the board, again most dramatically among the moderately educated, rising from 39 percent in 1988 to 68 percent in 2006-2008, not much different from the 74 percent of the high school dropouts.  (The number refers to the percentage of women 25-44 who have ever cohabitated.)  While in 1982 there was a relatively small gap between the percentages of 14 year old girls living with both parents in highly and moderately educated families, now there’s a similar gap between the least educated and moderately educated cohorts . . . and a yawning chasm (23 percentage points) between the middle and upper ends of the educational spectrum.  (The current numbers are 52, 58, and 81 percent; in 1982, they were 65, 74, and 80 percent.)

One might be compelled to draw a counterintuitive conclusion from these data: exposure to the druken orgies of college life and to the lectures of nihilistic atheistic professors actaully helps people hold the line against the general decay of marriage as an institution.  (Perhaps that’s not so counterintuitive: many a soul has awakened after a night of debauchery and vowed to hew to the straight and narrow forevermore.)

But I jest.

The precipitous decline of marriage among the moderately educated middle is a serious and enormous social problem.  After all, stable family life is associated with all sorts of salubrious outcomes—behavioral, educational, and economic—just as unstable or non-existent family life is associated with all sorts of social pathologies.  What’s more, if stable family life doesn’t help pave the way for social mobility, then we run the risk of introducing or making more permanent just the kind of class structure that can give the lie to the American Dream.

The report’s authors offer a number of explanations of this phenomenon, some “cultural,” some economic, and some having to do with the engagement of different groups with civic and religious institutions.  This is not the place to offer an exhaustive account of these explanations, but here are a few that are interesting:

  • There’s some evidence that moderately educated Americans are becoming more socially liberal as their better educated counterparts are becoming marginally less so.

  • “[M]oderately educated Americans are marked less likely than are highly educated Americans to embrace the bourgeois values and virtues—for instance, delayed gratification, a focus on education, and temperance—that are the sine qua non of personal and marital success in the contemporary United States.  By contrast, highly educated Americans (and their children) adhere devoutly [note the word choice] to a ‘success sequence’ norm that puts education, work, marriage, and childbearing in sequence, one after another, in ways thgat maximize their odds of making good on the American Dream and obtaining a successful family life.”

  • The influence of a newer “soul mate” model of marriage—viewing it as “primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses”—poses especial challenges to the more economically marginal moderately educated class, whose members have a harder time believing that they have what it takes, economically and emotionally, to have a successful marriage.

  • Moderately educated Americans are less engaged civically and religiously than are their better-educated counterparts: barely half of25-60 year olds were members of civic groups in the 2000s, as opposed to more than 75% of the better educated, and they also trail the latter group in church attendance 28-34.  In both cases, the figures are down from the (apparently unjustly maligned) 1970’s, but with respect to the moderately educated, the drops are quite precipitous.

In his column, Douthat explains this new and rather depressing order of things in terms of a migration of a substantial number of religious believers  into the highly educated cohort.
In part, these shifts may be a testament to the upward mobility of religious believers. America’s college-educated population probably looks more conservative and (relatively speaking) more religious because religious conservatives have become better educated. Evangelical Christians, in particular, are now one of America’s best-educated demographics, as likely to enroll their children in an S.A.T. prep course as they are to ship them off to Bible camp.

This means that a culture war that’s often seen as a clash between liberal elites and a conservative middle America looks more and more like a conflict within the educated class — pitting Wheaton and Baylor against Brown and Bard, Redeemer Presbyterian Church against the 92nd Street Y, C. S. Lewis devotees against the Philip Pullman fan club.

Those—dare I say it?— left behind are not altogether unchurched, but a significant (and perhaps increasing) proportion of them are.  If religious involvement is a central factor in marital stability and hence in social mobility (indeed, all the aforementioned explanations of the decay of marriage among the moderately educated have a religious dimension), then those who profess to care for the least among us ought to favor, rather than oppose, the involvement of churches and faith-based organizations in downscale communities all over the country.

The religious, of course, have their own reasons for wishing to bring the good news to those who haven’t heard it.

But even those who can at most regard religion instrumentally, who are given to materialistic explanations for all behavior and economic solutions to all problems, have to recognize that at the heart of providing opportunity for all is the family (not the government) and that essential to buttressing the family is the church (and not the government).

For further reflections on the consequences of the report, go here .

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