A recent New York Times article points out that divorce rates—once highest in metropolitan, big city areas—are now creeping upward in Middle America:

Forty years ago, divorced people were more concentrated in cities and suburbs. But geographic distinctions have all but vanished, and now, for the first time, rural Americans are just as likely to be divorced as city dwellers.

And it’s not just an upswing in divorce rates. Middle America is also experiencing another dramatic family shift: the rapidly increasing rate of children born to single mothers.

Recent research by Professor Brad Wilcox highlights these trends. He reports that in 1982 only 13 percent of babies born to women in the “moderately educated middle” (non–college graduates who completed high school) were born to single mothers. Today, that number is 44 percent. This calculation much more closely mirrors the 54 percent rate among women without a high school diploma and is far beyond the 6 percent rate among well-educated women.

And the implications are tragic. A child born to a single mother is over five times more likely to live in poverty than a baby born to married parents, and 80 percent of long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes. Furthermore, approximately three-quarters of all poor families in the U.S. are headed by a single parent.

Lest one think the divide between poverty and wealth in single- and married-parent families is simply a matter of educational discrepancy, consider the findings of Heritage policy analyst Robert Rector: “The poverty rate for a single mother with only a high school degree is 31.7 percent, but the poverty rate for a married-couple family headed by an individual who is only a high school graduate is 5.6 percent.” Based on these rates, he concludes that “marriage drops the odds of being poor by 80 percent.”

The poverty created by single-parenthood is not only debilitating to women and children; it places a significant burden on taxpayers, who are subsidizing these households with an ever-increasing amount of tax dollars as the out-of-wedlock birthrate and the cost of federal welfare programs have soared over the last five decades.

Considering the debilitating effects of poverty—as well as a variety of other increased risks associated with fatherlessness—Wilcox sums up the implications of the “retreat from marriage”:

The disappearance of marriage in Middle America … endanger[s] the American Dream, the emotional and social welfare of children, and the stability of the social fabric in thousands of communities across the country.

Local, state, and national policymakers must consider the impacts of the eroding “social fabric” of marriage and seek policies that promote strong families. Furthermore, policies that penalize marriage must be eliminated. Strong marriage and family in all parts of the nation are crucial to maintaining a thriving, prosperous, and truly independent America.