How does marriage fare as the nation heads into the new year?

Unfortunately, the most recent government data indicate that U.S. marriage rates are at an all-time low. Today, a little more than half of all Americans are currently married, compared to more than 70 percent five decades ago. Additionally, the age at first marriage among both men and women is at historic highs. Related to these trends, the unwed birthrate is also at a historic high (more than 40 percent). On the bright side, however, the research indicates that marriages in the United States are lasting longer.

And while the rate of unwed childbearing is steadily increasing—with many negative consequences not only for children but society as a whole—a positive note is the decline in the rate of sexual activity among young adults. According to a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 percent of females and 27 percent of males between the ages of 15 and 24 report never being sexually active, compared to 22 percent of both men and women in 2002. And while the Obama Administration has fought hard against abstinence education programs—for example, explicitly prohibiting “Healthy Marriage and Relationships” grant money from going toward abstinence educationfunding for abstinence education was restored.

Besides fighting against abstinence education, the Administration also made a full-fledged attack on traditional marriage, explicitly stating in the early part of the year that it would not defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Not only was this a blow to marriage, but it represented an unprecedented refusal by the executive branch to defend federal statute. Furthermore, in November the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to pass legislation that would repeal DOMA.

Another significant setback for traditional marriage was the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York.

However, other states took action to defend marriage. For example, North Carolina and Minnesota voted to place initiatives on their 2012 ballots that would amend the state constitutions to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Earlier this year, the Maryland legislature narrowly voted against a law that would have made same-sex marriage legal in the state.

Additionally, states like Kansas have introduced a healthy marriage initiative with such efforts as public relations campaigns to educate people on the benefits of the institution.

Marriage is central to the well-being of the United States. While marriage is beleaguered at this moment in our nation’s history, the evidence remains strong that marriage is still the best place for children as well as the No. 1 weapon against childhood poverty. Yet it isn’t just the children who benefit. Both men and women reap many advantages. The momentum to support marriage looks promising as the U.S. heads into 2012.