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Nearly 40 percent of women in the United States have never been married, an all-time high, according to new data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Beyond lower marriage rates, a high divorce rate and increasing numbers of children born outside of marriage indicate that marriage in America is struggling—or rather that more Americans are struggling to form and maintain marriages.

But these trends in marital decline are not created equal. Lower-educated (without a high school diploma) and now a growing portion of moderately educated (high school graduates) adults in “middle America” are experiencing significantly greater marriage declines, divorce rates, and unwed childbirths than their college-educated peers.

These trends have consequences. While lower education levels are associated with higher rates of poverty, having a child outside of marriage dramatically increases the likelihood that a woman and her child will be poor and dependent on welfare across education levels. For example, the poverty rate among single mothers with less than a high school diploma is over 45 percent. However, contrast this with only 15 percent of married-parent homes at the same education level.

Considering the link between unwed childbearing and poverty and the high proportion of unwed births to low-educated and moderately educated women, as opposed to the low rate of unwed births to college-educated women, it is no surprise that researchers are describing the formation of a two-caste society, with marriage and education as the dividing line.

While many unwed births occur within a cohabiting relationship, these children do not reap the same financial benefits and are at greater risk for a variety of outcomes compared to their peers in married-parent homes.

Marital decline is a tragedy also because many lower- and moderately educated women deeply value marriage. In fact, they are just as likely to say that marriage is “very important” or “one of the most important things” as are their more highly educated peers. These women also place a high priority on motherhood.

Yet, as David and Amber Lapp of the Institute for American Values report from their research on working-class single parents, marriage and parenthood have become disconnected. For example, one young unmarried father in a working-class community noted:

It’s kind of biased if you say you have to be married because you have a kid, you know. ‘Cause I mean, that’s not the point. I mean, that doesn’t matter.… Of course a child needs a father figure and of course a child needs a mother figure…[but that] really has nothing to do with the marriage.

In reality, a child’s well-being has a lot to do with marriage, as does the well-being of women, men, and society in general. As the decline in marriage becomes more common for those in “middle America”—the majority of the nation’s population—fewer adults and children will reap the benefits of this foundational institution. As Professor Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, asserts:

If marriage becomes unachievable for all but the highly educated, then the American experiment itself will be at risk. The disappearance of marriage in Middle America would endanger the American Dream, the emotional and social welfare of children, and the stability of the social fabric in thousands of communities across the country.

Efforts to rebuild marriage are crucial to strengthening this most fundamental unit of society.

Image used under Creative Commons from yourdon