Individual v. Collective, Live and Learn

The Decline and Fall of American Marriage

Conservatives baffle me to no end with all the hubbub they make about gay marriage. Honestly, who cares? As Theodore Olson, veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations, says: “Marriage is one of the basic building blocks of our neighborhoods and our nation…The fact that individuals who happen to be gay want to share in this vital social institution is evidence that conservative ideals enjoy widespread acceptance. Conservatives should celebrate this, rather than lament it.” You’d think that conservatives’ bigger concern would be that “individuals who happen to be gay” seem to be the only folks wanting “to share in this vital social institution” these days.

Everyone knows that divorce rates are sky high, about 50% (although there’s some debate about this). But I don’t think most people realize just how far the institution has fallen. So, let’s present a graphic representation, with thanks to the University of Maryland.

Here’s the divorce rate graphically; basically it shot up in the 60’s as the counter-culture began and no-fault divorce became common, then the rate settled in at about double the previous rate:

So there are a lot of divorces, everybody knows this. What most people don’t realize, however, is that a lot fewer people are getting married now than before. In fact marriages are down by about half:

The common thought here might be that women have become more career oriented and have foregone family. That doesn’t appear to be the case however. As the Pew Research Center has shown, marriage is still relatively strong among the affluent, but has utterly collapsed among the working class:

Overall, the percentage of people 18 years and older who were currently married fell from 72% to 52% from 1960 to 2008. Furthermore, another issue that should be concerning is the reduced fertility rate. Japan is going through a decades long demographic nightmare; basically too many old people and not enough kids. A replacement fertility rate, i.e. to keep the population steady with no immigration or emmigration, is 2.1 children per women. Right now, the U.S. is just below that at 2.05:

This could obviously spell a lot of trouble for our entitlement system which is built on unfunded liabilities like a Ponzi scheme, requiring an ever greater population to subsidize the current beneficiaries. Luckily (or unluckily depending on your point of view), much of Europe, and the rest of the modern world is in even worse shape. Not only do they have bigger welfare states, their fertility rates have imploded:

Upside down family trees make welfare states no-worky. Furthermore, while we’re having less children, more and more of the few children we do have are being born to people who aren’t in a good position to take care of them. Out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed in the last 50 years to over 40%:

By 2000, female-headed households had increased from 6% to 23% and male-headed (single parent) households from 1% to 6%. According to Pew, only 4% of people see this as a good thing (69% as bad). And empirically, the majority of Pew respondents have a point since the vast majority of murderers, suicides, delinquents, rapists, drug addicts, high school dropouts and the like come from broken families. Of course this isn’t a gender thing, after all, gay parents do just as well as straight ones. It’s a math thing: 2 > 1.

The ever so controversial Charles Murray has a book coming out called Coming Apart which argues that this trend is the major force behind class stagnation and class separation and blames cultural shifts and the incentives created by the welfare state. He discusses it here, I think it’s definitely worth your time. Either way, it’s clear that marriage in the United States is collapsing.

Photo Credit: University of Maryland and Pew


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6 thoughts on “The Decline and Fall of American Marriage

  1. Andrew,

    You truly are a statistical slaughterhouse towards the uninformed!

    I have yet to read anything by Charles Murray (seems like all anyone cares about from him is “The Bell Curve”), but you have given me yet another reason to check out what he has to say. There was an interesting dialogue about the shifting economic role of marriage as well at Cato Unbound a few years ago:


  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks again. It is unfortunate that every time his name is mentioned the Bell Curve comes up. I haven’t read that book, but it sounds like the racial aspect was refuted by Tom Sowell and the other aspects are 1) smart people do better, which doesn’t need a book and 2) the “intellectual elite” are becoming more and more segregated from the rest of society; which is interesting.

    I’ll check out that link from Cato, thanks


  3. Pingback: I want to move, my wife doesn't. - Dating, marriage, boyfriends, girlfriends, men, women, friends, attraction ... - Page 8 - City-Data Forum

  4. Continuous Wave says:

    I noticed you didn’t map out the spike in divorce rates with the implication of “no fault divorce.” We live in a society where 21st century women are protected by 20th century laws. In other words, she can cheat, keep hers, take half of his, plus alimony plus excessive child support. If he cannot afford it, the courts will place him in jail.

    If you want to bring back marriage, you will need to update these laws and remove sexists bias from the family courts. You will need to make false sexual abuse and false domestic abuse charges punishable by jail time. Remove no fault divorce laws, make sure that Shared Parenting, 50/50 or close, is the default instead of she gets the kids.

    As sad as it is to say, if you are a man, you are an idiot to get married today. For a man to want to raise his children in a healthy stable environment he has to risk everything.


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