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Strengthening the Middle Class Starts at Home
Cohabitating couples account for many non-marital births.
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CHARLOTTESVILLE--In February, President Obama delivered a speech in Chicago about strengthening the middle class and reducing gun violence. He made an observation that drew little attention but has the potential to bring together gridlocked Republicans and Democrats. The task of rebuilding a strong and secure middle class, he suggested--of rebuilding "the ladders of opportunity for everybody willing to climb them"--does not start with the White House, or the states, or public schools.
It "starts at home."
"There's no more important ingredient for success," President Obama suggested, "nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families--which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood." Getting personal, he said, "I wish I had a father who was around and involved."
You don't have to be a Democrat, or a Republican, to recognize that President Obama is right.
And appreciating the link between a thriving marriage culture and a thriving middle class is especially important because of the crisis of marriage in Middle America today. As an ideologically diverse group of family scholars (including W. Bradford Wilcox) points out in a recent report, "The President's Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent," when we hear about the decline of marriage in America, we should think especially about the almost 60 percent of Americans who have a high school education but no college degree. These are the people in America's broad middle who, as the report points out, "once married in high proportions and formed families within marriage."
But no longer.
EDUCATION PLAYS A ROLE
According to a report released this week, "Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America" (also co-authored by Wilcox), 58 percent of first births to Middle American mothers are outside of marriage. By contrast, only 12 percent of first births to college-educated mothers are outside of marriage.
The "Knot Yet" report shows that Middle American young adults still aspire to marriage--about 80 percent say that marriage is an "important" part of their life plans. But before they reach the altar, most are having their first child outside of marriage, often in a cohabiting relationship. Indeed, more than half of non-marital births to Middle American women are to cohabiting couples.
W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and David Lapp is a research associate