Marriage crisis is bipartisan imperative

A war over the family divided liberals and conservatives in the last several decades. Now is the time to end that war and come together for a nationally urgent and common cause. With 40 percent of children born to unwed mothers today, and a growing marriage gap between wealthy and poor, we can’t afford to go on pretending that strengthening marriage is a conservative or liberal cause.

It’s helpful to remember that, in an earlier generation, it was a liberal who called national attention to the crisis of the family, particularly the African-American family. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in a controversial 1965 report, warned that as long as the breakdown of the black family continues, “the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.” While Moynihan gave exclusive attention to the black family, the statistics clearly show that the crisis of marriage today is truly a national crisis and requires the concerted attention of the entire nation.

Research shows that there is a growing class-based marriage gap: College-educated persons are getting married at a greater rate — and enjoying longer-lasting marriages — than noncollege-educated persons. As University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox reported in a recent essay for National Affairs, since 1980 the divorce rate for college-educated persons actually dropped by 30 percent, while rising 6 percent among the noncollege-educated. Further, as a 2007 Child Trends study reported, only 7 percent of mothers with a college degree have had a child outside marriage, compared to more than 50 percent of mothers who had not gone to college.

Consequently, as Wilcox notes, “children on the lower end of the economic spectrum [are] doubly disadvantaged by the material and marital circumstances of their parents.” And as family scholar Paul Amato and economist Rebecca Maynard point out, many scholars now believe that “a major cause of the rise in child poverty in the United States during the second half of the 20th century is the decline in married-couple households.”

Thus, one of the most important actions we can take to ensure greater equality of opportunity is to strengthen marriage. While it’s a tall order, we can do it. If marriage stabilized among one segment of the population — the college-educated — it can happen in other segments as well.

Any turnaround, however, will require a national, bipartisan movement built around the principles of cultural competence — mobilizing together as a nation to reverse the decline of an institution so central to our welfare. What might that movement look like?

● National, bipartisan, racially diverse partnerships. We need creative partnerships that transcend the traditional barriers of political party, race, class and religion. A September 2009 conference provides a good model. The National Summit on Marriages, Parenting and Families at Hampton University, a premier historically black institution of higher education in Virginia, was a serious effort by a bipartisan and broadly diverse group of scholars and leaders to give attention to the state of marriage and family in our country and to identify ways to strengthen them.

● Community and religious partnerships. Unless we take practical steps to strengthen marriages in our neighborhoods and communities, we won’t make any progress. To that end, houses of worship and community organizations could work together to make marriage education, counseling, couple-to-couple mentoring and other marriage-strengthening efforts more widely available — especially to low-income couples.

● Public policy. The government should adopt a multifaceted approach and focus on making the pathways to economic well-being — marriage and thrift, the nest and the nest-egg — more affordable and more accessible. And the task of wise public policy is to make them available, especially for low-income families.

Government at all levels should also pay attention to disincentives to marriage in the present system. For instance, current public policy actively discourages marriage in low-income communities by cutting benefits to couples that choose to wed. We could remedy this problem by reducing the financial “marriage penalty” that today impedes many low-income couples from marrying and financially weakens many couples who do marry. Marriage shouldn’t be a taxable event or a union that causes you to lose benefits.

But it’s not just a matter of making family formation affordable. The key to economic independence — and a key to reducing dependence on welfare — is building economic assets over time. Yet current public policy discourages saving among low-income persons, and does little if anything to encourage saving among Americans of modest means.

We could remedy this problem by organizing employers and other community institutions to expend savings programs for employees and residents; by making it possible for persons receiving government benefits to save without penalty; and by establishing matched savings accounts for eligible low-income individuals, independent of marital status or plans.

We need to finally put aside the notion that strengthening marriage is the province of any one political party. It’s not. Creating a more hospitable marriage culture is the urgent task of anyone who wishes to preserve enduring love and to care for our children.

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Kansas.

Dr. Linda Malone-Colón is executive director of the National Center for African American Marriages and Parenting and chair of the Psychology Department at Hampton University.