Marriage as a Public Issue

By Nock, Steven L. | The Future of Children, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

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. …

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