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Increasing How Many Children are Raised by Happily Married Parents

Further Reading

Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep

National Marriage Project, "Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences" 3rd Edition   

Robert I. Lerman and W. Bradford Wilcox, "For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America"  

Mark Regnerus and Jeremy UeckerPremarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying  

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As sources of valuable social capital, few relationships are as important as the family ties between parents and children. However, as with other features of our associational life, family ties have been weakening for several decades.
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For two years, the Social Capital Project has documented trends in associational life—what we do together—and its distribution across the country. With this evidentiary base established, the Project turns to the development of a policy agenda rooted in social capital. Specifically, the focus will be to craft an agenda to expand opportunity by strengthening families, communities, and civil society.
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Last year, the Social Capital Project released its Social Capital Index, a tool that measures the health of associational life across the United States. As explained in our earlier report, What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America, we define associational life as the “web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors—namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and our religious congregations.
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Although family life in America has become less stable over the last several decades, the majority of the American population still agrees that marriage provides value to individuals and society. Yet based on results from the 2018 American Family Survey, marriage and parenting fall low on the list of what respondents considered essential to a fulfilling life. And while Americans overall seem to think that childbearing should take place within marriage, marriage does not seem to be as important a prerequisite to becoming a parent as are other factors.
Social capital is almost surely an important factor driving many of our nation’s greatest successes and most serious challenges. Indeed, the withering of associational life is itself one of those challenges. Public policy solutions to such challenges are inherently elusive. But at present, policymakers and researchers lack the high-quality contemporary measures of social capital available at the state and local levels to even try proposing solutions that are attuned to associational life.

Nonmarital childbearing has increased dramatically in the United States. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of births were outside of marriage. Today, over 40 percent of children are born to single mothers. This trend is troubling, considering that children are on average at-risk for poorer outcomes when raised outside a married-parent home.1 As we explain in our recent report, Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage: The Rise in Unwed Childbearing, several factors contributed to the increase in nonmarital births. The most significant factors, however, have been the decline in “shotgun marriage” (unions occurring between a nonmarital conception and a birth) and the drop in marriage altogether.

The most intimate and central form of associational life is the family—an institution with primary responsibility for nurturing children and transmitting values, knowledge, aspirations, and skills to subsequent generations. A healthy family life is the foundation for a healthy associational life. Children can overcome the negative consequences of being raised in unhappy or unstable families, but many start out the game of life already behind in crucial ways. More profoundly, weakened family life portends a diminished ability of a people to promote and nurture the civil society and pro-social norms that facilitate happiness and prosperity.

The American Enterprise Institute recently published a new report by Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang that highlights the class divide in American marriage. As the authors explain, prior to the 1970s family life looked similar across socioeconomic levels, but today there are stark divides across class when it comes to marriage, divorce, and unwed childbearing.