Our marriage rate decline is more (probably) not good news

I’d normally rather toss you some good news to take your minds off the pandemic this evening, but this is at least mostly separate from that story. Recent compilations of available data have revealed a disturbing trend when it comes to marriage in the United States. Specifically, we’ve hit a new low in marriage rates… one not seen in well over a century. As the Washington Times reports, the American marriage rate has been slowly dropping for quite a while, but the numbers from 2018 (the last year where full data is available) have tipped the scales down to a new nadir.

The U.S. marriage rate has fallen to its lowest level in 120 years after having declined steadily since the 1980s and plateauing over the past decade, a study says.

The declining marriage rate holds social and economic implications, from household formation to the U.S. birthrate, researchers and observers said.

Only 6.5 wedding licenses for every 1,000 U.S. adults were issued in 2018, the most recent year with complete data, according to a study published Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s a 6% decline from 2017 and comes after a relatively stable rate between 2009 and 2017, when about seven couples married per every 1,000 Americans.

On the surface, these numbers may not seem all that bad. After all, going from seven couples out of 1,000 adults for the previous eight years to 6.5 sounds like a fairly insignificant drop. But when you consider the raw population of adults in the United States (approximately 209 million), that means there were more than one thousand fewer marriages.

If you prefer to look on the bright side, the highest marriage rate we’ve ever seen was 16.4 new marriages per 1,000 adults in 1946, just as everyone was coming home from the war. The next peak we saw was 10.9 per 1,000 in 1972. Since then it’s been a mostly steady decline to roughly seven marriages per 1000 adults over the decade preceding 2018.

We should probably brace ourselves for another drop in marriage rates when the numbers for 2020 finally are compiled. We’ve seen plenty of stories of couples postponing marriage during the lockdowns where large gatherings are prohibited. Perhaps that will lead to a brief resurgence after the pandemic passes (assuming it does), but the 2020 numbers will almost certainly be lower.

Interestingly, the linked study suggests that one of the major drivers of the decreasing rate of nuptials is a decreasing rate of prosperity during harder economic times when women are less able to find “economically attractive partners.”

A recent study in the Journal of Marriage and Family says marriage rates, particularly since the Great Recession, have fallen because unmarried women face a shortage of “economically attractive partners” in the U.S. market.

“[D]eclines in marriage are driven at least in part by reductions in employment prospects and earnings among men, especially less-skilled racial and ethnic minorities at the bottom of the education distribution,” researchers Daniel T. Lichter, Joseph P. Price and Jeffrey M. Swigert said in their study, which was published in September.

Wow. That sort of deflates all the studies we’ve seen suggesting that the most important thing to women when choosing a mate is their sense of humor, doesn’t it?

Even if that’s true, men have their own motives when it comes to deciding whether or not to get hitched. It was a phenomenon I observed firsthand back in the seventies after no-fault divorce became the law of the land. Men back then became paralyzed when thinking about marriage because it would be so easy for any wife to simply decide “things weren’t working out” and leave, saddling the guy with alimony and child support payments for decades, essentially making him a wage slave.

Not a lot has changed since then. Also, shifting values and a decrease in people describing themselves as religious have devalued marriage. Are we a better society for that? I’ll leave that as an open question for the audience.

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