Marriage has become so rare in some quarters that folks no longer know how to talk about it — literally.
Mike Murphy, a pastor at a Milwaukee-area church for 13 years and a board member of a Milwaukee employment ministry, discovered this firsthand a couple years back.
For years, Murphy encouraged one of the men he mentored to consider marrying his girlfriend, the mother of two of his sons. The couple had been in an off-and-on relationship since junior high.
In 2016, the man, then in his 30s, decided he was ready. He proposed via the Miller Park scoreboard between the fourth and fifth innings of a Brewers game. His girlfriend said yes, to the delight of cheering spectators.
Murphy agreed to conduct the wedding. Along with his wife, Elizabeth, he provided premarital counseling and began to discuss the details of the impending ceremony with the couple.
“As we talked about groomsmen, ushers, vows, he stopped me,” says Murphy. “He said he had never been to a wedding before and that many of these words were foreign to him.”
Murphy was shocked. “It was like having cold water thrown into your face,” he says. “We think there’s a vocabulary, societal norms, that everybody knows.” He then realized he was operating out of his own assumptions and experience, failing to recognize the societal shift that had taken place.
Murphy’s experience is not surprising, says W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies.
In an email, Wilcox notes that marriage has become “comparatively rare” in some communities. Marriage is “fragile and weak” among the poor and “foundering” among the middle class, he reported in State of Our Unions, a 2010 study he co-authored.
Wilcox says numerous factors contribute to the trend. “Marriage is in decline because of growing individualism and secularism, as well as a changing economy that makes it hard for men without college degrees to earn a family wage,” he told the Badger Institute. “Government welfare policy also often penalizes marriage.”
In the 2015 study Strong Families, Prosperous States, Wilcox and his co-authors found that “states with a higher number of families headed by married parents enjoy significantly higher levels of economic growth, not to mention greater economic mobility, higher median family income and less child poverty than states with more families headed by single and cohabiting parents.”
Marriage also affects children and communities. “Neighborhoods with fewer two-parent families have markedly higher crime rates, and boys who are raised by single-mother households are twice as likely to be incarcerated by the time they turn 30,” Wilcox says.
“Policy-makers, business executives and owners, and civic leaders should experiment with a range of public and private policies to strengthen and stabilize marriage and family life in the United States,” he adds. “Such efforts should focus on poor and working-class Americans who have been most affected by the nation’s retreat from marriage.”
Specifically, Wilcox suggests that public policy start with a “do no harm” approach. “Policy-makers should eliminate or reduce marriage penalties embedded in many of the nation’s tax and transfer policies designed to serve lower-income Americans and their families,” he says.
Civic groups, “joined by a range of private and public partners, from businesses to state governments to public schools, should launch a national campaign … that would encourage young adults to sequence schooling, work, marriage and then parenthood. This campaign would stress the ways children are more likely to flourish when they are born to married parents with a secure economic foundation.”
Michael Jahr is the Badger Institute’s vice president of outreach and special projects.
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