Americans are less inclined to get married than at any time in U.S. history, posing social and public-policy dilemmas and threatening to dissolve the "glue" that connects fathers to their children, experts say.
A report released by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., found "a substantial weakening of the institution of marriage" in the United States.
The researchers said that the U.S. marriage rate has never been lower, births to unmarried women have skyrocketed, the divorce rate remains high and Americans' marriages are less happy than in the past.
"There is no known society that has gotten along without marriage and has done a decent job in rearing and sponsoring the next generation," said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, National Marriage Project co-director.
The crumbling of the institution of marriage should not be viewed as a benign social trend with no costs to society at large, said David Popenoe, the project's other co-director.
"Marriage is a fundamental social institution," the National Marriage Project report says. "It is central to the nurture and raising of children. It is the 'social glue' that reliably attaches fathers to children. It contributes to the physical, emotional and economic health of men, women and children, and thus to the nation as a whole."
The problem has worried policy-makers at the highest levels of the U.S. government. "To the extent that the collapse of marriage is behind larger social problems, the government has to deal with it where it can," Bruce Reed, President Clinton's chief domestic policy adviser, said in an interview.
The Clinton administration has embraced the idea that strong marriages and two-parent families are in the national interest, Reed said. "That was a controversial notion when political leaders in both parties stepped forward in the early '90s and started talking about it," he said.
"It's not so controversial now," he added, "but I think it's not a moral judgment; it's just simply an analytical fact that if you can increase the ratio of kids who grow up with two parents, you're going to reduce a number of social problems."
U.S. government statistics cited in the Rutgers report detail a crisis in marriage whose origins can be traced back about 40 years. The report, citing Census data, said the marriage rate has plummeted by a third since 1960. It said there were about 73 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women ages 15 and up in 1960. In 1996, the last year for which such figures were available, the rate was about 49 per 1,000.
Popenoe said the U.S. marriage rate now has dropped below a previous historic low recorded at the turn of the century. He said several factors have contributed to the trend. One is that Americans are postponing marriage until they are older.
In 1960, the median age for first marriages was 20 for women and 23 for men. In 1997, with many college-educated Americans delaying marriage until their 30s, the median age for marriage rose to 25 for women and 27 for men, the report said.
"The later the marriage, by and large, the lower the (overall) marriage rate in the long run. In other words, people delay too long, and then they decide not to marry after a while," Popenoe said.
In addition, many American women, particularly those who are African-American, are giving birth and rearing children without getting married.
In 1960, 5.3 percent of all U.S. babies were born to unwed mothers, according to government statistics. In 1997, 32 percent of all babies were born to unmarried women -- and a startling 69 percent of African-American babies had unwed mothers.
The percentage of U.S. children living without their father present also has ballooned. In 1960, 9 percent of children lived in a single-parent household. Last year, 28 percent of all children and 55 percent of black children lived with a single parent. Children in single-parent households overwhelmingly live with their mothers, with fathers absent, experts said.
Studies have concluded that children growing up without their biological father present are more likely to commit crime, abuse drugs and alcohol, drop out of school, commit suicide, live in poverty and become pregnant as a teen-ager than children living with their married parents. Those trends generally are borne out even if a stepfather is present, Popenoe said.
He and Whitehead said other factors affecting the marriage rate since 1960 are a huge jump in cohabiting partnerships; an explosion of sex outside marriage; the movement of women into the labor market, making many less reliant on a husband for economic reasons; an increase in individualism among Americans; and a popular culture and mass media that often are hostile to the institution of marriage.
The U.S. divorce rate now is twice what it was in 1960, although it has declined moderately since its peak in the early 1980s. The number of divorces ballooned from 9.2 per 1,000 married women in 1960 to 19.5 in 1998, the report said.
"We're world leaders in marital volatility and disruption," said Don Browning, director of the Religion, Culture and Family Project at the University of Chicago. "This is a form of social difficulty that we are facing that is very, very large." Experts said the U.S. government has contributed to the problem in the last 40 years with policies that have served as disincentives to marriage, such as welfare programs that encouraged unwed motherhood and the "marriage penalty" under which married Americans pay higher taxes than singles.
Clinton administration officials point to several steps taken in recent years to address the issue, including: eliminating a welfare rule that limited the number of hours a married couple could work and still receive benefits; enacting a law that allows Americans to take time off from work to attend to family and medical needs; and proposing a number of changes in the tax laws.
Reed, who heads the White House Domestic Policy Council, said: "As to what government can do to affect the decision of 'to marry or not to marry' and 'to divorce or not divorce,' those are hard questions. But I do think . . . it's worth looking at everything government does to make sure that it's not contributing to the problem."