Opinion Columns & Blogs

The state of our family unions

With each new year comes a new State of the Union address. Doubtless this year's address will focus on the economy. But as the president's speechwriters hunch over their keyboards to pound out drafts of this year's oration, they would do well to include some language about the state of our family unions.

In good times and bad, the family is the basic building block of society. No matter how the U.S. economy performs in 2010, there is much work to be done to improve the state of the American family.

First, there is work to be done on the propagation of family. Over the past half century, out-of-wedlock childbirth has grown by fits and starts, but it has not once had a recession. In 1950, 1 in 20 American children was born to an unwed mother. Today that number is nearly 4 of every 10.

Even more worrisome, the rate of childbearing outside of wedlock has risen sharply in recent years, climbing by 26 percent between 2002 and 2007. And that occurred during a period of economic growth.

This trend seems counterintuitive. Rising gross domestic product and per-capita income should decrease stresses on family life. In flush financial times, one would think that key family indicators such as divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy would decline. But family dynamics are far more complicated than that. Marriage and family relations react in unpredictable ways to both economic and political conditions.

Last month the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project released a report called "The State of Our Unions 2009." Summarizing a number of studies from leading family researchers across the country, the report provides interesting information, and some cautionary tales, on questions of money and marriage.

For starters, project director Brad Wilcox notes that in 2008, the first year of one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history, the divorce rate actually declined by seven-tenths of a percent. "Since the downturn began in December of 2007," the report says, "millions of Americans have adopted a home-grown bailout strategy. They are relying more upon their own marriages and families to weather this economic storm."

As times toughen, family members turn to one another for short-term economic help, or even a place to live. As Robert Frost memorably wrote, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." In this deep recession, it is reasonable that families are rediscovering both their inherent practical and morale-nourishing benefits.

However, the cautionary tales are just as real. Last spring the news was full of references to the "mancession," the fact that the current economic downturn has disproportionately impacted males, especially working-class men lacking more than a high school education. The gap between the male and female unemployment rates was 2.5 percentage points last May. Even when the unemployment rate dipped to 10 percent last November, this gap did not narrow. The National Marriage Project report documents the fact that men are 61 percent less likely to rate themselves happy in marriage if they work fewer hours than their wives.

The concern is that the economic mancession could become an economic recovery marriage-cession. If renewed prosperity releases pent-up desire to separate, and more couples believe they can make it on their own, then the recent decline in divorce may be reversed. And because marriage is influenced by cultural forces above all, a resurgence of family breakdown could reinforce today's trends regarding the failure to form families, through delayed marriage and births outside its bonds.

All of these issues would be ripe topics for President Obama as he discusses the state of our nation at the onset of 2010. They are also a sober reminder that a false sense of prosperity breeds disaster. (Witness the housing bubble that touched off our current economic woes when it burst in 2008.)

Real prosperity — past and future — is built on a free economy combined with personal virtues of hard work and fidelity to those closest to us. It is encouraging that these tough economic times have coincided with a decline in divorce as families relearn the value, both temporal and spiritual, of the bonds of love. It would be a shame if the return of economic growth leaves those lessons in the dust. Families are always worth a second effort.