Four lessons on staying married

June 07, 2001|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Sometimes government forms just don't give you enough room to say what you really want to say.

When the census form or tax form asks for marital status, I look for a box that says, "Married - and proud of it." Or, "Married - and let me tell you, it hasn't always been easy all of these years, but we've stuck to it and ..."

But, no. Uncle Sam doesn't care. You only get a few little boxes to describe your life to the government. As a result, you get a lot of statistics that tell you about changes in our population and precious little explanation for why the change is happening.

One thing we do see in the latest population figures is a decline in the percentage of "married households." For the first time, people who live alone account for one-fourth of the adult population, outnumbering married couples with children.

At the same time, single parenting is growing. In fact, married households would be dropping even faster across this country were it not for the contributions of one group in particular: recent immigrants.

A recent Washington Post analysis found that traditional American two-parent families are increasingly new immigrants, particularly Asian and Hispanic.

Two-parent families increasingly are found in the parts of the country that are attracting the largest numbers of immigrants, particularly the West, which has a fourth of the nation's population, the Post found.

That trend confirms recent findings by former Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, a leading expert on family structure. By the end of the 1990s, out-of-wedlock births among whites in America had soared past the 25 percent rate that alarmed Mr. Moynihan when he reported it among blacks in the 1960s. By the end of the 1990s, it had leveled off at 70 percent among blacks, yet still rises among whites.

Now a senior public policy scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the New York Democrat finds marriage rates are dropping among parents throughout the industrialized world. At a record 33 percent, America's climbing out-of-wedlock birth rates actually are lower than in Britain, France and Scandinavia and about the same as Canada.

This alarms politicians. Tucked deep in President Bush's 2002 budget is $60 million for grants to "promote responsible fatherhood," promote "successful parenting" and "strengthen marriage" with faith-based and other more conventional programs.

I favor programs that help parents get married and stay married, if the programs help reduce poverty. But even $60 million may not be enough money to put more than a dent in the out-of-wedlock childbirth rates that have been bubbling upward in all income groups and across racial lines. Maybe the question we should be asking is, what do immigrants, often arriving here from underdeveloped countries, know that we in the sophisticated, modernized industrialized countries do not?

One thing that parents in less affluent societies have more of is need - often quite desperate need. In poor communities here or abroad, people turn to each other for survival largely because they have to.

As economies and government support to the needy become stronger, Mr. Moynihan has observed, the consequences of irresponsible behavior decline. Families become more mobile. Communities break apart. So do many homes. So, instead of teaching the industrialized world about the virtue of marriage, new immigrants may find marriages breaking down in the next generation as their children become more Americanized.

To reverse that trend will require a social sea change. Marriage will have to become chic again, according to my friend Iris Krasnow, a former UPI reporter who left UPI to raise four children. Married 13 years, she interviewed 300 people for her new book, "Surrendering to Marriage: Husbands, Wives and Other Imperfections."

"I've learned four things," she told me. "Marriage can be hell. The grass is not greener (with someone else). No one is perfect -- including you! And you might as well love the one you're with, especially if you have children."

Love the one you're with? Sounds like an old rock tune. Of course, not everyone can dance to it. Some marriages are better off divorced. But she's right about the grass not always being greener, especially for the kids.

Clarence Thomas is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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