An increasing rate of young adults in the United States seems to have cold feet when it comes to marriage.

For the first time in recent history, adults between 25 and 34 years of age who are single outnumber their peers who are married. On top of this, the number of married adults in 2009 reached a historical low.

Conor Doughtery, reporting on new Census numbers in The Wall Street Journal, writes:

In 2009, the proportion of adults 25 to 34 who had never been married was 46.3%, compared with 44.9% for those who were married. …

The precipitous drop in marriage rates has pushed the proportion of married adults to 52% in 2009, the lowest in more than 100 years of statistics.

But the decline in marriage isn’t simply something for wedding dress manufacturers and florists to bemoan. The plummeting marriage rate has severe consequences for the entire nation.

Hand-in-hand with the declining marriage rate comes an increasing number of children born outside of marriage. And having a child outside of marriage is one of the greatest predictors of poverty and being on welfare. A child born to a single mother is six times more likely to live in poverty than a child born to married parents, and 80 percent of long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes.

Unfortunately, Census data show that the rate of children born outside of marriage now stands at 40 percent, the highest ever in U.S. history. This number is even greater for Hispanics and African Americans, at approximately 50 and 70 percent, respectively. Considering the strong correlation between single motherhood and poverty, this growth in out-of-wedlock childbearing is tragic.

Married fathers are one of the greatest protections against child poverty. If single fathers married the mothers of their children, nearly two-thirds of poor, single-mother families would be pulled out of poverty. On the other hand, over 40 years of increasing federal and state spending on welfare programs for the poor have been ineffective at helping people into self-reliance.

If Americans are serious about assisting people out of welfare and into dependence—or helping people avoid welfare altogether—it is absolutely necessary to strengthen the institution of marriage. Fortunately, there are steps that we can take to do this. First, the federal government should reduce marriage penalties in current welfare programs. Second, existent programs targeting young adults in low-income communities should promote marriage and educate them about the negative consequences of having a child outside of marriage.

When marriage breaks down, children, communities, and taxpayers feel the consequences. A strong nation is built on strong marriages. It’s time policymakers made the vow to promote this vital institution.