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The Future of Marriage in America

Just in case you’d forgotten about the dismal state of family life in America, a recent article in The New York Times provided a sobering reminder. “Motherhood without marriage,” authors Jason DeParle and Sabrine Taver­nise inform us (Feb. 17), “has settled deeply into middle America.”

Their claim is based on statistics culled from government data by Child Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, which found that in 2009, for the first time in our nation’s history, more than half of all children born to American women under the age of 30 were born outside the bonds of marriage. According to DeParle and Tavernise, this signals a “coming generational change” in the make-up of the American family unit.

Our authors don’t tell us how this growing phenomenon will transform the American family, other than to say that what was once called “illegitimacy” is now “the new normal.” But by reading between the lines, one gets a pretty good idea of what to expect for the coming generation of middle Americans. “Almost all of the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together,” they explain. And the relationships of cohabiting couples are “more than twice as likely to dissolve” as the relationships of married couples. “Two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.” In other words, cohabitation usually leads to single-parenthood. And more often than not, it is the mother who winds up being the single parent. We should expect, therefore, an increase in the incidence of single parenthood in America, and the myriad social pathologies that accompany it. What might those be, you ask?

Children born outside of marriage, write DeParle and Tavernise, “face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.” Research has shown that single mothers comprise the largest group of welfare recipients. Moreover, the children of single parents are at greater risk of sexual abuse, are more prone to involvement in crime and drug abuse, and are hence more likely to face incarceration. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that a majority of prison inmates, as well as a majority of juveniles in state-run institutions, were raised in single-parent homes.

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