Panel Discussions

When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America

A Conversation with Elizabeth Marquardt, Affiliate Scholar, IAV, and W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, University of Virginia and editor of The State of Our Unions.

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More by: Elizabeth Marquardt

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W. BRADFORD WILCOX and ELIZABETH MARQUARDT tackle the striking yet little-discussed decline in marriage among "Middle America" – the nearly 60 percent of Americans who have completed high school, but do not have a four-year college degree. Among that group, 44 percent of children are now born outside of marriage, up sharply from 13 percent in the 1980s.

According to numerous studies, children born or raised outside of marriage are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems – including drug use, depression, attempted suicide and dropping out of high school – compared to children in intact, married families, as summarized in past reports such as "Why Marriage Matters" from the same team.

While debates over same-sex marriage have filled the headlines, the rapid hollowing out of marriage in Middle America – more than half of births among women under 30 now occur outside of marriage – has received scant attention from national leaders, they note.

Even modest improvements in the health of marriage in America will reduce suffering and yield savings for taxpayers, the report argues. One study calculated that reducing family fragmentation by just 1 percent would save $1.1 billion annually as fewer children repeat grades, are suspended from school, require counseling or attempt suicide.

Noting that the disappearance of marriage in Middle America is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in the same communities, Wilcox and Marquardt argue that strengthening marriage is a vital pathway to opening social opportunity and reducing inequality.

This conversation was recorded in New York City on December 7, 2010.

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