Middle America, the mythical heartland where God, country and family are held in sacred esteem, appears to be turning its back on marriage, according to a new study.
The 2010 "State of Our Unions," released last week by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, reports that the 58 percent of adults who have a high school diploma and possibly some further education (short of a four-year degree) are increasingly disenchanted with marriage, are more likely to divorce and are more likely to have children out of wedlock, circumstances that align them with the poorest Americans and the most fragile families.
Meanwhile, those with college degrees are more likely to embrace marriage — and church, an institutional connection that can reinforce and support their commitment to children and family.
This shift in marriage attitudes is largely driven by economics, the authors suggest.
Those who still believe that you have to have a job before you can commit to marriage and a family are precisely those who are having the hardest time gaining a stake in this shrinking economy — the blue-collar workers who are employed for their skills, not their level of education.
"The family lives of today's high school graduates are beginning to resemble those of high school dropouts," the report says, "with all the attendant problems of economic stress, partner conflict, single parenting and troubled children."
This is a far cry from where the country was in the 1970s, when, as college kids, we thought marriage was nothing more than a piece of paper used by society to enforce conformity.
Now the college-educated among us are more likely to embrace long-term planning, self-denial and the importance of educating our children. And we are more likely to go to church.
Those were the values we once associated with a conservative Middle America. But that group, the report says, is more permissive on premarital sex, children out of wedlock and divorce than it was back in the day.
The result is a "marriage gap" between the educated classes and everybody else. And you can guess who is falling through that gap. The children.
That is the real bad news in this report. Once again, the children are the ones who suffer the consequences of the decisions the parents make.
The report shows that moderately educated households are much more likely than their highly educated counterparts to have children outside of marriage. This percentage has grown from 13 percent in the 1980s to 44 percent in the late 2000s, while among the highly educated, the percentage has grown from 2 percent to 6 percent. Among the least-educated mothers, the number of out-of-wedlock births grew from 33 percent to 52 percent.
The report concluded that Middle America is losing faith in marriage and, as a result, the quality of those unions is declining.
But marriage has been repeatedly shown to produce better outcomes for kids, in terms of behavior, education and achievement. And the parents don't do so badly, either. Most married adults have been shown to be happier and healthier; they live longer and have more meaningful lives.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it looks like marriage may be the worst institution for humans — unless you compare it with all the others.
Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her e-mail is email@example.com.