Marriage as a Public Issue
Nock, Steven L., The Future of Children
Over the past fifty years, powerful cultural and social forces have made marriage less central to Americans' family lives. In reaction, the United States is now engaged in a wide-ranging debate about the place of marriage in contemporary society.
In this article, Steven Nock examines the national marriage debate. He begins by reviewing the social and demographic trends that have changed the role of marriage and the family: the weakening link between marriage and parenthood caused by the contraceptive revolution, the declining significance of marriage as an organizing principle of adult life, and the increasingly accepted view that marriage and parenthood are private matters, relevant only to the individuals directly involved. He then considers the abundant scientific evidence on the positive consequences of marriage for both the economic well-being and the health of American adults. He notes that based partly on the evidence that marriage is good for adults and children, numerous public and private groups, including religious activists, therapeutic professionals, family practitioners, educators, and federal and state government officials, have initiated programs to strengthen marriage, lower divorce rates, reduce out-of-wedlock births, and encourage responsible fatherhood. He then reviews some of those programs.
Nock observes that although large cultural and social forces are driving the decline in marriage, most of the new programs attempting to restore or strengthen marriage in the United States focus on changing individuals, not their culture or society. He argues that the problem cannot be addressed solely at the individual level and cautions that given how little researchers and professionals know about how to help couples get or stay married, expectations of policies in these areas should be modest. But despite the shortage of effective strategies to promote marriage, he notes, a political, cultural, and scientific consensus appears to be emerging that the best arrangement for children is to live in a family with two loving parents. He believes that the contemporary marriage debate is an acknowledgment of the cultural nature of the problem, and views it as a crucial national conversation among Americans struggling to interpret and make sense of the place of marriage and family in today's society.
Following several decades of sweeping demographic, social, and legal changes that have minimized the importance of marriage in U.S. society, a wide-ranging assortment of Americans--religious activists, family practitioners, therapeutic professionals, educators, and state and federal officials--is now conspicuously promoting marriage. Public discussions of family formation often support the goal of having all children raised in healthy, married families. Social science research offers evidence that marriage, unlike other family structures, confers special benefits on both adults and children. Public policymakers promote stable marriages and discourage unmarried births. Congress has declared out-of-wedlock births, reliance on welfare assistance for raising children, and single-mother families contrary to the national interest. This article reviews this renewed national interest in marriage, focusing first on the demographic trends behind the debate and then on the scientific evidence about the consequences of marriage for the economic well-being and health of Americans. It next identifies the primary actors and activities involved in the marriage-promotion effort, and concludes by considering the significance of this renewed national focus on marriage.
Marriage as a Public Issue
Marriage is no stranger to national debate in the United States. It has been at the center of a variety of American social, religious, and political movements over the nation's history. Past political activists, most at the state level, have worked to deny access to marriage to certain groups--slaves, people of certain races, certain categories of immigrants, or homosexuals--or to grant married women greater legal rights or to liberalize divorce laws. (1) Social and religious activists have typically focused on such matters as reducing divorce. What is new--and remarkable--about the current marriage movement is that its purpose is to promote matrimony.
In certain respects, today's marriage movement may seem surprising. After all, most Americans value marriage highly, and the overwhelming majority marry at some point in their lives. (2) Indeed, by international standards they marry at high rates and divorce at lower rates than they did two decades ago. But the institution of marriage has recently undergone dramatic transformation. Rapid demographic and social changes in the United States over the past four or five decades have fundamentally disrupted traditional marriage and family patterns. What once forcefully organized American life no longer does so. In many respects, the current debate about marriage represents the nation's attempt to interpret and make sense of these wrenching social changes.
The chief demographic and cultural trends driving the marriage debate have been the weakening link between marriage and parenthood, the declining significance of marriage as an organizing principle of adult life, and the increasingly accepted view that marriage and parenthood are private matters, relevant only to the individuals directly involved.
In his article in this volume, Andrew Cherlin provides a full discussion of the demographic shifts over the past half-century in the way Americans organize their households and families. The most significant for my discussion are the following. First, people now postpone marriage to later ages. They often live in their parents' homes, with friends, or with unmarried partners, thus increasing the time adults spend unmarried. Second, more couples now live together without getting married, either as a precursor or an alternative to marriage or as an alternative to living alone. The availability of such alternatives naturally makes marriage less central to domestic life. Third, high divorce rates and births to unmarried mothers leave more households headed by single parents, increasing the time both adults and children spend outside married-couple families. Fourth, because more women, especially more married women, are in the labor force, the prevalence of one-wage-earner, two-parent families--what has been called the "traditional" family--has declined. Finally, delayed and declining fertility and increasing longevity result in fewer children, smaller families, and longer lives, adding to the time parents spend "post-children" and to the number of married couples without children. (3)
These five demographic trends reflect other important social and economic changes, including increasing equality between the sexes, the legalization of abortion, increasing tolerance for diverse lifestyles, and liberalized laws governing divorce. Perhaps the most important change, however, has been the development of effective birth control.
Gaining Control of Fertility
The centrality of marriage in American culture and law during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be understood, in part, as a consequence of poorly controlled fertility. (4) As long as sexual intercourse naturally resulted in births, marriage (or engagement) was the only permissible venue for sex. Marriage was an institutional and societal arrangement that allocated responsibility for children. No alternative civil or religious arrangement could accomplish that task, except in extraordinary circumstances. By restricting sex to marriage, communities were able to reduce births of children for whom no male kin were obviously and legitimately responsible.
Children born outside marriage were denied certain legal rights, such as inheritance and claims on paternal assets. These children--and their mothers--were also stigmatized in the eyes of the community. By such means, communities effectively limited the number of births outside marriage. But once effective contraception uncoupled sex from fertility, this social justification for marriage became irrelevant. The convention of "shotgun" weddings, for example, gradually disappeared. (5) Before the advent of effective contraception and legal abortion, a wedding to avoid the stigma of an illegitimate birth typically followed a premarital pregnancy. That it no longer does so illustrates the changing understanding of the importance of marriage for births.
The birth control pill was introduced in 1960. Within a decade, more than a third of all married women in America were using oral contraception. There was also a noteworthy increase in voluntary sterilization among women older than age thirty. Indeed, by 1970, six in ten American married women were using medical, effective, non-coitus-related methods of birth control. Ten years earlier, wives had extremely limited access to contraception, and much of what existed was ineffective. (6) These technological innovations in birth control have been described as a "contraceptive revolution" or a "reproductive technology shock" because of their profound implications for social customs and norms.
Sex Becomes a Private Matter
The contraceptive revolution made sex a private matter legally and essentially removed it from state control. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions during the 1960s had major implications for the legal and cultural meaning of sex and childbearing. In the most important case, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Court declared unconstitutional a state law forbidding the use of contraceptive devices, even by married couples. Writing for the Court majority, Justice William O. Douglas explained that various guarantees of the …
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Publication information: Article title: Marriage as a Public Issue. Contributors: Nock, Steven L. - Author. Journal title: The Future of Children. Volume: 15. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2005. Page number: 13+. © 2000 Princeton University-Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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