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The State of Marriage in a Time of Crisis

The family’s vital role is more apparent than ever during a crisis, and in recent weeks Americans have depended on the comfort and support of family more than usual. Unfortunately, new research suggests that the foundation of the family continues to erode.

Earlier this month, Richard Reeves and Christopher Pulliam at the Brookings Institute released a paper describing marriage patterns by income, with a focus on the middle class. Among other trends, they found that over the past 40 years middle class marriage rates have steeply declined. Those in the lower middle class have marriage rates similar to the bottom quintile, while the marriage rate of those in the upper middle class more closely resembles that of the highest quintile.

Source: Brookings report authors' analysis of the Annual Social and Economic Supplement, Current Population Survey, 1980-2019.
Middle class is defined as families in the middle 60 percent of the income distribution.


The Brookings report also shows the decline in the percentage of children currently living with two parents by income quintile. “In 1979, 86 percent of middle-class children lived with two parents. By 2018, that number has dropped to 80 percent,” the authors note.

Source: Brookings report authors' analysis of the Annual Social and Economic Supplement, Current Population Survey, 1980-2019.


The findings from the Brookings report dovetail neatly with findings from two past reports from the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project: Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage: The Rise in Unwed Childbearing (2017) and Rising Unwed Pregnancy and Childbearing across Educational and Racial Groups (2018). These papers document trends in marriage, divorce, abortion and nonmarital childbearing.

In the 2017 report, the Social Capital Project illustrated the marriage rate all the way back to 1880 for women between the ages of 15 and 44. This graph demonstrates in particular the steep decline in marriage in recent decades:

Source: Social Capital Project analyses of decennial census and Current Population Survey data through IPUMS.


In the 2018 report, our researchers show that in recent decades, the percent of births to unwed mothers dramatically increased for women with low and moderate education levels while remaining relatively low and stable for women with higher educational achievement.

Social Capital Project analyses of data from the Current Population Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth.


In that report, our researchers conclude:

“Because of the decline of marriage—both shotgun marriage and marriage in general—far fewer children today reap the benefits of a married-parent family than in past decades. This is particularly the case among minority children and those from less-educated households.”

Reeves and Pulliam’s findings also fit with findings presented at the Joint Economic Committee’s hearing “Improving Family Stability for the Wellbeing of American Children” in February.

At the hearing Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox argued that, while there have been recent upticks in the proportion of children living in married families, there are stark disparities in family structure and stability by education level. He also highlighted the disparities in family structure by race and ethnicity.  

Source: 2007–17 estimates based on the American Community Survey, and 2018–19 estimates are projections based on 2018 and 2019 Current Population Survey.


Source: American Community Survey data


These trends deserve further attention. As Senator Mike Lee recently argued here:

“the American family is in a precarious state: although the vast majority of Americans still desire to marry, the marriage rate has declined for decades and stable family life has disappeared for millions of American children … Our federal government should not be in the business of punishing marriage. Instead, it should support policies that strengthen marriage and thus improve the likelihood of family stability for children. State and local leaders should also seek ways to strengthen marriage and increase family stability.” 

It’s worth considering the ramifications of marriage and family trends. During national crises, some institutional supports weaken or disappear entirely. But strong family relationships can provide lasting support to help Americans through the toughest times.

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