Why hasn't this been done before? That question comes immediately to mind in light of the release of "The Marriage Index," a project undertaken by the Institute for American Values in cooperation with the National Center for African American Marriages and Parenting. The Marriage Index is an instrument that, for the first time, offers a comprehensive view of the state of marriage in the nation.
Throughout most of the 20th century, economic policy has been informed by the "Leading Economic Index" calculated by The Conference Board. That index, designed to track economic trends and to warn of impending recession, utilizes ten components of data, ranging from the average weekly hours worked by manufacturing workers to the amount of new building permits for housing. Just about everyone -- including both government and the private sector -- utilizes the Leading Economic Index as an essential tool for evaluating the health of the economy and its future prospects.
Now, for the first time, The Marriage Index does for the health of marriage what the Leading Economic Index does for the health of the economy -- it provides essential data we ignore at our own peril.
The Marriage Index is a project of the Institute for American Values and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting. As their recently released report asks: "Why do we so carefully measure and widely publicize our leading economic indicators, and do everything we can to improve them, while rarely bothering to measure our leading marriage indicators, or try to do anything as a society to improve them?"
The availability of The Marriage Index as a means of assessing the health of marriage is a most welcome development. As Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, comments, "It's a brilliant conceptual idea, long overdue. This is a GDP for marriage, a way to statistically sum up complex trends in a way that allows us to capture a core truth: Is marriage getting weaker or stronger?"
The Marriage Index is based on solid data and includes five major components: the percentage of adults ages 20-54 who are married, the percentage of married persons who are "very happy" with their marriage, the percentage of first marriages that are intact, the percentage of births to married parents, and the percentage of children living with their own married parents.
The percentage of adults who are married is an obvious indicator of the health of marriage in society. The report considers this percentage among the population of adults who are most likely to be coupling and least likely to be widowed. This indicator is not encouraging. As the report reveals, "The trend in the last four decades suggests that many adults are less likely to find marriage an attractive choice. In 1970, 78.6 percent of adults age 20-54 were married. In 2008, it dropped to 57.2 percent."
"People still form relationships and still have children, but they are more likely to do so without marriage," the report summarizes. This trend is especially common among younger adults. These young adults have experienced a disillusionment about marriage due to the divorce rates of their own parents. They now "show a much more favorable attitude toward cohabitation than earlier generations."
The second indicator considers how many married persons report themselves to be "very happy" in their marriages. This measure of marital quality can be tracked through available data, and the trend is not positive. Though a clear majority of married Americans report their unions to be very happy, that figure has dropped from 67 percent to 62 percent in 40 years.
The marriage quality indicator is also important for children. As the report affirms, "when parents' marital relationship suffers, children also tend to suffer." The report also cites University of Texas sociologist Norval Glenn, who argues that the decline in marital happiness can be directly traced to the undermining of marital permanence by the availability of divorce.
The third indicator is the percentage of first marriages that are intact. In 1970, 77.4 percent of first marriages were intact, but only 61.2 percent were intact in 2007. There are signs that the percentage of intact first marriages may have actually increased in the last decade of this period, indicating that the divorce statistics are not inevitable. In other words, marital commitment can increase over time.
The percentage of births to married persons is the fourth major indicator. There has been a stunning increase in the percentage of children born to single parents or cohabiting couples. Today, only 60.3 percent of all babies are born to married couples, compared to 89.3 percent in 1970. Few statistics in social science reveal such a massive shift in the way human beings act and organize their lives. Marriage is the unique context in which children are most likely to flourish. Just one fact to keep in mind: Half of all children born to cohabiting couples see those unions end by age five.
The fifth indicator is the percentage of children living with their own married parents. "Marriage not only ensures that children are born into a stable family," the report argues, "it also intends that children are raised with their own biological or adoptive mother and father." The report cites family scholar David Popenoe, who stated, "Few propositions have more empirical support in the social sciences than this one: Compared to all other family forms, families headed by married, biological parents are best for children."
In contrast, children from divorced or single-parent families are more likely to drop out of school, to be unemployed, and to become teen mothers. Interestingly, recent research indicates that children raised in stepfamilies "look more like children of single parents than children being raised by their own married parents." In 1970, 68.7 percent of all children lived with their own mother and father. In 2007, that percentage had dropped to 61.0.
Taken as a composite, these leading marriage indicators reveal a score of 60.3 percent in 2008 -- a devastating drop from 76.2 percent in 1970. Clearly, the nation's marital health is in a free fall. This raises a frightening question: How low can these indicators fall and the society continue to survive?
The index of Leading Economic Indicators is understood to be a vital measure of America's health and future prospects. If anything, The Marriage Index should be understood to be even more important to the health and welfare of our society. How low can these indicators go and the nation survive? Let's pray we do not learn that answer the hard way.