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Earlier this month, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the increasingly “separate and unequal” character of marriage in the United States. The bishops asked him to speak to their Spring General Assembly, held in New Orleans June 10-13, as part of a broader effort to prepare for the upcoming Synod on the Family, which takes place this fall in Rome, and the World Meeting of Families, which will take place in Philadelphia in 2015. First Things asked him the following questions about his address to the bishops.

Your address to the American bishops addressed a growing “marriage divide” in America. One indication of this divide, as we learned last week, is that more than 50 percent of babies to mothers who don’t have college degrees are born outside of wedlock, compared to less than 10 percent of babies born to mothers with college degrees. What’s going on here with families?

The one bit of good news in all this is that marriage is comparatively strong among college-educated Americans. For this group, divorce has come down since the height of the divorce revolution in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Moreover, college-educated adults are now more likely to get married and to enjoy high quality marriages than less-educated Americans. All this spells good news for their children: A clear majority of children born to college-educated homes will be raised by their own married parents.

But the bad news, as I noted in a report called When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America, is that marriage is now in trouble not just among the poor but among a broad swath of working-class and lower middle-class Americans, a group I call “Middle Americans.” I described it this way to the bishops in New Orleans: “the retreat from marriage is now spreading into the bedrock of Middle America: that is, small towns, rural communities, and outer suburbs across America. From Danville, Virginia, to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to Hillsboro, Ohio, divorce is high and nonmarital childbearing is on the rise.” In other words, outside of the privileged precincts of upscale inner suburbs and affluent urban neighborhoods, marriage is losing ground.

These trends are particularly important because they impact the quality and stability of children’s family lives, as the figure below indicates. Today, children from moderately (high-school/some-college educated) and the least educated (high-school dropout) homes are much less likely to grow up with both parents, compared to children from highly educated (college-educated) homes.

What accounts for the growing marriage divide in America?

Liberals like William Julius Wilson at Harvard tend to finger economic causes, whereas conservatives like Kay Hymowitz at the Manhattan Institute tend to finger cultural changes and poorly conceived public policies. They are both right.

On the economic front, men without college degrees have seen their real wages fall, and their risk of unemployment increase since the 1970s (see figure below). This matters because men without access to stable work are much less likely to get and stay married. By contrast, college-educated men are doing comparatively well in today’s labor force, which makes them more desirable as marriage partners.

On the cultural front, we are seeing what I call a “marriage mindset”—where people value childbearing within marriage as well as marital permanency—find a more secure purchase among highly educated Americans than among less-educated Americans. For instance, the figure below shows that teenagers from highly educated homes are much more likely to report that they would be embarrassed by a teenage pregnancy than their peers from less-educated homes.

These economic and cultural forces have been joined by a third factor, the decline of civil society, that has left American adults and families detached from communities of memory and mutual aid, especially less-educated ones. The most striking declines in civic engagement have been for church attendance among moderately educated Americans, as the figure below indicates. That’s significant because churches have long supplied religious meaning, moral direction, and social support to marriage in America.

So, what we are seeing is that a range of economic, cultural, and civic changes in American life have all conspired to weaken marriage in poor and working-class communities across the United States. By contrast, the economic, cultural, and civic sources of marital strength remain comparatively strong in upscale communities like Darien, Connecticut, McLean, Virginia, Los Altos, California, and Southlake, Texas.

Why does it matter that children in poor and working-class communities are less likely to grow up in intact, married homes?

It matters because these children are now doubly disadvantaged. Not only do they have fewer economic resources, they also are less likely to benefit from the shelter, security, and stability typically afforded by an intact, married family.

To be clear, many children raised in single-parent or blended-families turn out okay. But it’s also the case that children raised in such families are less likely to thrive than their peers from intact families. Boys raised outside of an intact, married family are about twice as likely to land in prison or jail by the time they turn thirty, girls see their risk of a teenage pregnancy about triple when they are raised outside of such a home, and—for boys and girls—their odds of attending and graduating from college are markedly lower if their parents do not get and stay married (see below).

It’s this kind of research that led Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan and her colleague Gary Sandefur to write that if they we were to design a family, the “two-parent ideal . . . [would ensure] that children had access to the time and money of two adults . . . would provide a system of checks and balances that promoted quality parenting . . . [and the] fact that both parents have a biological connection to the child would increase the likelihood that the parents would identify with the child and be willing to sacrifice for that child, and it would reduce the likelihood that either parent would abuse the child.”

At the bishops’ meeting, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput asked, given this research, what do most social scientists think about same-sex families and child well-being? And, I might add, what do they make of higher rates of instability among gay and lesbian couples?

Most family scholars think that children are most likely to thrive in stable, two-parent families, regardless of their parents’ sexual orientation. Indeed, if there is one thing that family scholars across the political spectrum agree upon, it is that children are most likely to flourish when they enjoy stable home lives. While family scholars acknowledge that studies in Sweden and Britain have found more instability among same-sex couples, they would contend that research, such as a new study from Bowling Green State University, also suggests that gay and lesbian couples can enjoy more stable relationships when communities extend legal and cultural support to them.

What can churches do to bridge the growing class divide in American family life?

My argument to the bishops was three-fold. I suggested that

1) Churches need to be a voice for economic justice for lower-income families by, for instance, advocating for more generous child and earned-income tax credits, as well as for the elimination of the marriage penalties embedded in many of our public policies directed towards lower-income families. Policy moves like these would strengthen the fragile financial foundations of many poor and working-class families.

2) Pastors, lay leaders, and educators need to speak more clearly about marriage, both from the pulpit and in other teaching venues in the their churches. Believers need to learn about the ways in which marriage advances the emotional, social, and economic welfare of children. Of course, these catechetical efforts should be sensitive to the demographic and personal realities in the pews. Priests, pastors, and lay leaders also need to do a better job of standing in solidarity with couples in crisis, both by explicitly acknowledging they can be found in any local church and by connecting them to professionals and seasoned lay couples who can help them.

3) Finally, especially given the precarious position of many working-class and poor men, vis-à-vis religion, work, and marriage, churches need to strengthen their ministries devoted to the unemployed and underemployed, as well as to men. Recent decades have seen the emergence of impressive ministries targeting the college-educated—from FOCUS to InterVarsity. Now, churches need similarly inspired ministries for the majority of young adults who will not receive a bachelor’s degree.

These are the kinds of steps churches need to take to ensure that the United States does not devolve into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where upscale Americans enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones. To put it differently, bridging the marriage divide in America is of paramount import for all of us who are committed to pursuing social justice.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, directs the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. Follow: @WilcoxNMP.

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