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Posted October 22, 2009

Report finds weakened state of US marriage,
some encouraging signs

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Although several measures of the health of marriage in the U.S. have declined sharply since 1970, there are some signs of improvement this decade, according to a new "marriage index."

The index, produced by the New York-based Institute for American Values and the National Center on African-American Marriages and Parenting at Hampton University in Virginia, assesses the strength of the institution of marriage by using five indicators:

-- The percentage of people ages 20-54 who are married.

-- The percentage of married adults who describe themselves as "very happy" in their marriages.

-- The percentage of intact first marriages among married people ages 20-59.

-- The percentage of births to married parents.

-- The percentage of children living with their own married parents.

The combined score for the five "leading marriage indicators" dropped from 76.2 percent in 1970 to 60.3 percent in 2008, according to the index. But since 2000, there have been small gains in the percentage of intact first marriages (from 59.9 percent to 61.2 percent) and the percentage of children living with married parents (60.5 percent to 61 percent).

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was not involved in producing the marriage index, has chosen strengthening marriage as one of its top five priorities for the coming years.

Since 1970, the percentage of married adults has declined from 78.6 percent to 57.2 percent in 2008, while the percentage who said they were "very happy" in their marriages went from 67 percent to 62 percent. The percentage of Americans in intact first marriages dropped from 77.4 percent in 1970 to 61.2 percent last year.

A report on the marriage index was prepared by researchers David Lapp and Alex Roberts of the Institute for American Values and endorsed by more than a dozen marriage and family scholars across the country. It encourages adaptations of the index to gauge the strength of marriages by state or region or among particular ethnic, racial or religious groups.

Among African-Americans, for example, the index found the health of marriage to be significantly lower than the U.S. average.

The combined score since 1970 had dropped from 64 percent to 39.6 percent, with only 29 percent of African-American children living with their own married parents and 39.6 percent of those ages 20-54 being married.

The report says research suggests that the strength of marriages "influences our well-being at least as much as the status of our finances."

"Why do we so carefully measure and widely publicize our leading economic indicators, and do everything we can to improve them, while rarely bothering to measure our leading marriage indicators, or try to do anything as a society to improve them?" the researchers asked.

"The absence of a clear, compelling and commonly agreed upon set of leading marriage indicators prevents us from focusing clearly on the health of marriage in America," they added.

The report said some might question why two of the five leading indicators -- births to married parents and children living with married parents -- relate to the status of children.

"The simple answer is that these last two indicators concern more than just children: Fundamentally, they reflect the link between adults and children that marriage is designed to create and secure," it said. "Any index that purports to measure the health of marriage must capture the strength or weakness of that link."

Since 1970 the percentage of U.S. births to married parents went from 89.3 percent to 60.3 percent, while the percentage of children living with their own married parents declined from 68.7 percent to 61 percent.

The report also included a list of 101 ideas to help improve the strength of American marriages in the future.

The suggestions range from the individual ("Love your spouse and children, or encourage someone else who's married to love their spouse and children") to the familial ("Be intentional about talking to your teenagers about marriage") to changes in the workplace ("Reduce the practice of continually uprooting and relocating married couples with children").

The report also called for some changes at the national level, including federal funding of marriage education, legal reforms that make divorce more difficult, and the collection of marriage and parenting statistics by national and state research centers.

"Congress should pass a resolution stating that the first question of policymakers regarding all proposed domestic legislation is whether it will strengthen or weaken the institution of marriage," it said.