| December 12, 2012

Americans ready to abandon the American Dream?

"The American Dream": The term -- like so many in the modern lexicon -- has been so overused as to be almost devoid of meaning. Once, it called to mind a particular economic and social progression through life -- a progression that almost invariably included work, marriage, family and homeownership. The particular starting and ending points of the progression varied from person to person -- rags to riches for some, lower middle class to upper middle class for others. "The American Dream" derived much of its durability from its orientation toward the long-term future of the country -- toward improving not just the lot of the individual, but also the lot of the next generation.

Today, far from conjuring an attractive mental image (of, say, a red brick home with a white picket fence) or that concept of positive progression, the phrase "American Dream" calls forth an almost weary reaction from those who are keenly aware of still-high unemployment and the declining labor force participation rate (or what The Wall Street Journal calls "the case of the missing workers").

Civic-minded citizens fret for the future of the American Dream -- not simply because they perceive a reduction of economic opportunity in the United States, but, just as importantly, because they perceive a lack of interest in what opportunity does exist, as well as the demonization of those who create that opportunity.

That lack of interest extends -- perhaps especially -- to what we would traditionally think of as "non-economic" or "social" opportunities -- like the opportunities to marry or have children -- that nonetheless have great bearing on the economy.

As Heritage Foundation scholar David Azerrad said in his keynote address to the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce last week, "When it comes to the American Dream, the family is not a tangential social or religious issue; it is a crucial economic one that is deeply intertwined with mobility."

It would seem, though, that many young Americans today think the family is tangential to success, economic or otherwise -- and, so, appropriate to be jettisoned.

Historically in the United States, the majority of men and women have taken advantage of the opportunity to marry -- and at a reasonably young age. Today, the proportion of unmarried Americans is suddenly at an all-time high, as is the median age of first marriage among those who do marry. In the latest edition of The Weekly Standard, Jonathan Last puts these statistics another way:

Between 1910 and 1970, the “ever-married rate”​—​that is, the percentage of people who marry at some point in their lives​—​went as high as 98.3 percent and never dipped below 92.8 percent. Beginning in 1970, the ever-married number began a gradual decline so that by 2000 it stood at 88.6 percent.

Today, the numbers are more striking: 23.8 percent of men, and 19 percent of women, between the ages of 35 and 44 have never been married. Tick back a cohort to the people between 20 and 34​—​the prime-childbearing years​—​and the numbers are even more startling: 67 percent of men and 57 percent of women in that group have never been married. When you total it all up, over half of the voting-age population in America​—​and 40 percent of the people who actually showed up to vote this time around​—​are single.

Why are young people spurning marriage? We could say with complete accuracy that they're spurning this particular opportunity in favor of others -- the opportunity to pursue higher education or careers, to live exclusively for themselves, to indulge in a greater number or wider variety of romantic relationships, or, perhaps, to wait patiently for a more perfect partner than the potentials presently available to them. As proponents of individual liberty, we could also say American singles are certainly within their rights to exercise their freedom not to marry.

What we cannot say is that their decision not to marry has no effect on society or on "the American Dream" as it has traditionally been understood. Last explains:

At the individual level, there’s nothing wrong with forgoing marriage. But at scale, it is a dangerous proposition for a society. That’s because marriage, as an institution, is helpful to all involved. Survey after survey has shown that married people are happier, wealthier, and healthier than their single counterparts. All of the research suggests that having married parents dramatically improves the well-being of children, both in their youth and later as adults.

In their special report "Defending the Dream: Why Income Inequality Doesn't Threaten Opportunity," Azerrad and his colleague Rea S. Hederman Jr. expand on the effects of family breakdown on "the American Dream":

The traditional family is not in good shape, especially in the lower class and now, increasingly, in the middle class. For a vast number of Americans, childbearing and marriage no longer go hand in hand. The number of out-of-wedlock births has skyrocketed from 10 percent as recently as 1970 to more than 40 percent today. Among black Americans, seven out of 10 children are born to unmarried mothers—more than two and half times the rate for white children. Additionally, researchers estimate that the average couple marrying for the first time has a 40 percent to 50 percent probability of divorcing.

Taken together, the spectacular increase in the number of out-of-wedlock births and the pervasiveness of divorce spell trouble for the children who grow up without both of their parents. Of the plethora of statistics linking the collapse of the family to a host of social ills, one in particular stands out: Being raised in a married family reduces a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80 percent. Even after controlling for the different education levels of single mothers and married couples, the married poverty rate is still more than 75 percent lower. ...

Studies also show that the negative effects of being raised in a single-parent home are not confined to childhood: They continue into adulthood and thus have far-reaching implications for economic mobility. “Children living in single-parent homes are 50 percent more likely to experience poverty as adults when compared to children from intact married homes,” writes Rector. “This intergenerational poverty effect persists even after adjusting for the original differences in family income and poverty during childhood."

Obviously, marriage is not a guarantee that the two parties to it or their children will automatically be economic contributors and upwardly mobile, nor is the breakdown of a particular marriage a guarantee that the former parties to it and their children will not be economic contributors or downwardly mobile. In general, though, Americans face this choice: They can either redefine "the American Dream" to look an awful lot like the Obama campaign video "Life of Julia" -- i.e. redefine it to exclude marriage and include an unprecedented degree of dependence on government -- or they can attempt to revive the cultural importance of marriage.

Oklahomans, especially, face this choice, for we’ve created a kind of marriage paradox. We’re not so skeptical of marriage as our fellow Americans who are forgoing it entirely. We’re a marrying bunch – likely to enter marriage about two years sooner than the average American and also more likely to be or have been married than the average American. At the same time, we’re not living up to our own ideals: We have one of the highest divorce rates in the country.

This is nothing new, and Oklahoma, in particular, has already attempted to address family breakdown in the state through various marriage initiatives. The problem is likely to persist because, as Azerrad and Hederman also point out, "The collapse of the family is a deep-seated cultural problem. As such, it admits of no simple policy solutions." Still, those who care about the economy and economic mobility have a vested interest in marriage, regardless of whether they realize it. The sooner we recognize, along with “big thinker” Robert George, that “the market economy and the institution of marriage … will, in the end, stand or fall together,” the better – for both the market economy and the institution of marriage.

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