America’s Dismantling of Marriage

KEVIN SENICHEarlier this month, columnist Cynthia Allen reflected on America’s on-going debate about marriage and the historical connection between marriage and economic outcomes, especially for children.  “Marriage is not a silver bullet,” she said, but she also pointed out the failure of decades-long policies in our war on poverty, suggesting that there might be something to all the talk about the correlation between poverty and family instability.  Click here to read the full column (which later ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer).

Here is Kevin Senich‘s response:

Dear Ms. Allen:

I read with interest your article “It takes a wedding to boost upward economic mobility” that ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on March 8, 2014, and understand you have written about marriage in other articles.

Your conclusion in the above article is the appropriate one, but I suspect that you, like most Americans, have no appreciation of just how systematic the dismantling of marriage has been from a legal standpoint.  I say this because only we aging baby-boomers are left to remember parents whose life-long marriages were bound not only by personal commitment, but by legal constraint.

In 1969 Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, signed into law the first no-fault divorce legislation in America.   Within five years, virtually every state had followed suit.  Much has been written about the evils no-fault by a minority voice of detractors, but my purpose is not to debate its merits.  What can be said without serious debate is that the institution of marriage changed, perhaps irrevocably, at or about the time no-fault was instituted.

From that point forward, virtually half of all marriages in America have ended in divorce.  Interestingly, that figure has remained constant throughout the forty something years of no-fault in America.  What has not remained constant, as your article underscores, is the out-of-wedlock birthrate and the marriage rate.  Both are setting new records on a yearly basis, albeit in opposite directions, the former is dramatic ascension, the latter in precipitously decline.

Aside from the chilling fact that those who consider marriage must understand it is a 50/50 proposition from the outset, we have heavily invested as a society in making the single parent family economically and socially viable. The problem?  Despite our investment, it appears the single parent family has not been, and is not going to be, economically and socially viable.

Concomitant with the passage of no-fault divorce came an avalanche of legislation that was well-intentioned, but fundamentally anti-marriage.  In short order, bastardy laws were revoked, alienation of affections actions prohibited, child support laws and support enforcement laws adopted, and the social safety net of public benefits reinforced to carry the weight of single mothers and their fatherless children.  Today the child support enforcement of interconnected state and federal agencies taken collectively may well comprise the single largest agency of government in America.

The thrust of modern family law legislation is to equate child birth out-of-wedlock with child birth of marriage.   For young women, the stigma of out-of-wedlock child birth dissipates where access is readily provided to the same custody laws and same support laws as are provided to their married counterparts.  Whereas once upon a time, a child born out-of-wedlock had no expectation of support from a biological father, and certainly no interest as an heir to his father’s estate, today that child stands on a plane of equality with his half-siblings born of marriage.  Out-of-wedlock child birth and raising children as a single mother is not only normative under today’s law, that law encourages it.

My parents’ generation understood that the good of society required certain sacrifices by individuals and demanded constraints on personal freedom.  They entered marriage knowing there was no easy way out.   In the hubris of my generation, the belief arose that the expansion of any personal freedom ultimately would work for the benefit of society.  We are now free to have marriage without commitment or legal constraint, and free to have children without the benefit of any marriage at all.  And we are free to indulge ourselves with the pseudo belief that somehow it will ultimately all work for the benefit of society, even though we now know it is not.

Please keep learning and writing about marriage in America.  Yours is an important voice.  If for nothing else, we must remember to honor our mothers and fathers.  At last reading, that Commandment was still written in the conjunctive.


Kevin Senich



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