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Posted December 5, 2006

Families Under Pressure

Marriage, Funding and Faith Intertwine

By Father John Flynn

WASHINGTON, D.C., - Fewer stable married couples and more births outside marriage is the situation in the United States. Births out of wedlock reached 36.8% of the total last year, up by 1% compared with 2004, according to a Nov. 21 report from the National Center for Health Statistics, a federal agency.

About 4.1 million babies were born in the United States last year. More than 1.5 million of those were to unmarried women. The data showed that this time it is not teenage mothers who are responsible for the rise in births to single mothers, but women in their 20s.

In fact, the birthrate for teenagers declined 2% in 2005, and it is now 35% lower than its peak of 61.8 births per 1,000 women reached in 1991, the National Center for Health Statistics noted.

Earlier, a report by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that married couples account for only 49.7% of the population. This is down from 52% five years earlier, the New York Times noted Oct. 15. The newspaper said that the declining percentage of married couples is due to an increase in the numbers of adults spending more of their lives single or living unmarried with partners.

Nevertheless, Steve Watters, the director of young adults for Focus on the Family, told the New York Times that the trend of fewer married couples was more a reflection of delaying marriage than an outright rejection of it.

Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, was less optimistic. "The proportion of households that are married has declined from 76% in 1957 to below 50% now," he said in an article in the Nov. 5-11 issue of the National Catholic Register. "These are massive changes, and marriage as an institution is in decline."

But Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, argued that marriage is actually not in the minority. "While there is a clear and worrisome trend toward a decline in marriage in the U.S., the suggestion that marriage has become a minority institution is still false," she told the Register. A variety of experts point out that 85% to 90% of Americans will marry at some point in their lives.

Government support

Many organizations are involved in efforts to strengthen marriage, and they recently received a boost in federal funds. Last summer the U.S. Congress decided to set aside up to $100 million a year to promote marriage and $50 million a year to produce committed fathers, the Associated Press reported July 21.

The federal government has provided some money in the past to promote marriage, but it has only amounted to an average of about $14 million annually during the past four years, said Wade Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Helping couples value the institution of marriage is also of key importance according to a study by the Canadian government's statistical body, Statistics Canada. A June 28 report revealed that a key factor in a marriage's durability is the level of commitment to the institution.

In the study: "Till Death Do Us Part? The Risk of First and Second Marriage Dissolution," Statistics Canada analyzed data from the General Social Survey in 2001, as well as risk factors affecting the success or failure of a marriage. One key factor it found was the partners' commitment to marriage as a source of happiness.

In the case of a first marriage, some people were found to believe that the marital bond was not very important for their happiness. These people ran a risk of failure that was three times as high as that among people who deemed it very important.

In the case of subsequent marriages, this risk of failure was also nearly three times higher among people who felt marriage was not very important for their happiness.

Well over one-third of Canadian marriages will end in divorce before the couple celebrates their 30th anniversary, the report noted.

Role of faith

The study also found that marriage and having children tends to bring people back into the places of worship they may have neglected in their youth. A full 86% of those who at some stage of their lives have been married reported that they belonged to a religious faith. Of these, 42% had attended religious services at least once a month in the year preceding the survey. The corresponding rates for adults who have never married are 77% and 22%, respectively.

In turn, religious observance is associated with marital durability. People who attend religious services during the year have a 10% to 31% lower predicted risk of marital dissolution than those who do not attend at all.

The report also confirmed that "trying it out" by living together before marriage does not work. "Living common-law is also strongly associated with a first marital breakdown," commented the study. In fact, the risk is 50% higher among people who lived with their partner before the wedding than among those who did not.

Marriage, the report concluded, "still seems to possess an aura that elevates it above a simple living arrangement." Married couples generally have greater commitment and higher relationship quality than partners in common-law unions, "which suggests something about the transcendent nature of the marriage bond itself."

Divorce down

Earlier this year there was some good news for couples on the other side of the Atlantic. A report by the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics showed a decline of more than a quarter in the number of marriages ending in divorce, compared with the early 1990s.

The Sunday Times on April 2 reported that, in 2003, the number of couples divorcing in England and Wales after less than five years was 27,511, down from a high 10 years earlier of 37,252. Moreover, data for 2004 show that, for the third year running, more people got married. The number of weddings rose by 1% to 311,180.

The number of children, however, continues to decline, observed an article April 10 in the London-based Telegraph newspaper. The average family now has 1.3 children, compared with 2.4 only three decades ago.

The main reason cited by couples for the shrinking family size is financial. The data came from research among 2,428 adults. The study was commissioned by the Skipton Building Society.

The way British government welfare payments are structured also adds to financial pressures on the family, observed the British newspaper Independent on Nov. 26.

It recounted how a newly married couple who went to a job center for advice on benefits were told by a civil servant they would be better off if they split up. A couple gets 90.10 pounds ($175) a week in income support and single people 57.45 pounds ($112). The latter also get a higher rate of child support and dependent children and young person's benefits.

In the midst of these obstacles for families, Benedict XVI had words of encouragement for couples, in his Angelus message of Oct. 8. "Conscious of the grace they have received," said the Pope, "may Christian husbands and wives build a family open to life and capable of facing united the many complex challenges of our time."

"There is a need," he continued, "for families that do not let themselves be swept away by modern cultural currents inspired by hedonism and relativism, and which are ready instead to carry out their mission in the Church and in society with generous dedication." A task more difficult than ever.