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Marriage is in trouble in Middle America. High rates of divorce, nonmarital childbearing and single parenthood were once problems primarily concentrated in poor communities. Now, the American retreat from marriage is moving into the heart of the social order: the middle class.

This retreat from marriage imperils the social and emotional welfare of children. It also threatens the American Dream, insofar as adults who do not get and stay married are less likely to strive, to succeed and to save for the future.

This stark assessment emerges from a new report, When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America, sponsored by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the New York-based Institute for American Values.

The report explores marriage trends among three segments of American society: high school dropouts (12 percent of the adult population), those with high school diplomas who didn't go on to college (58 percent of adults) and college-educated men and women (30 percent).    

These segments of society reveal sharp differences in the marriage experience, and expectations for it. But the most striking finding is this: Marriage has declined most precipitously among the "moderately educated"—that is, those with a high school education, who make up the biggest number of adults.

The breakdown of marriage and family has afflicted the poorest Americans for more than a generation. What is happening today is a widening gulf between the middle class, where a sharp decline in marriage is at work, and the most educated and affluent Americans, where marriage indicators are either stable or improving.

Many of us need to adjust our thinking to recognize that the greatest threat to marriage may be the shrinking commitment of couples in middle class havens such as Wichita, Kansas, or Greenfield, Mass., not in rich enclaves such as Grosse Pointe, Mich., or blighted neighborhoods such as East St. Louis. Not surprisingly, the dangers posed by a class-based disappearance of marriage also have implications for the decline of religious belief and worship, as well as beliefs about the moral or cultural underpinnings of family life.         

Just as getting married changes individuals, failing to marry delays or defers personal maturity. For earlier generations, marriage functioned as a gateway to acceptance of adult responsibilities and habits—including attendance of religious services—that reinforce those responsibilities.  Narrowing or closing that gateway has profound effects.

Take this example: The divorce rate, as measured within 10 years of marriage, fell from 15 percent to 11 percent among college-educated adults between the early 1970s and late 1990s. But the divorce rate rose from 36 percent to 37 percent in the same period among those with a high school education, putting it slightly higher than the 36 percent rate among the least-educated Americans.

Trends in marital happiness are similar. From the 1970s until recent years, the number of spouses between ages 18 and 60 who reported being "very happy" in marriage dropped from 68 percent to 57 percent among moderately educated Americans. Those saying they were "very happy" dipped from 59 percent to 52 percent among the least-educated, while there was no drop in marital happiness among the highly educated.    

More starkly, the proportion of moderately educated adults who are in their first marriages declined from 73 percent in the 1970s to 45 percent in the 2000s. For this education and income range, marriage is now a minority experience.

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Marriage: Marginalized in the Middle