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Opinion | Marriage is Declining in America

When I was young, everything in society seemed to aim one toward marriage. It was the expectation. It was the inevitability. You would — and should — meet someone, get married and start a family. It was the way it had always been, and always would be.

But even then, the share of people who were married was already falling. The year I was born, 1970, the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 50 who had never married was just 9 percent. By the time I became an adult, that number was approaching 20 percent.

Some people were delaying marriage. But others were forgoing it altogether.

This trend has only continued, and we are now nearing a milestone. This month, the Pew Research Center published an analysis of census data showing that in 2019 the share of American adults who were neither married nor living with a partner had risen to 38 percent, and while that group “includes some adults who were previously married (those who are separated, divorced or widowed), all of the growth in the unpartnered population since 1990 has come from a rise in the number who have never been married.”

This came on the heels of data released by the National Center for Health Statistics last year, which showed that marriage rates in 2018 had reached a record low.

We are nearing a time when there will be more unmarried adults in the United States than married ones, a development with enormous consequences for how we define family and adulthood in general, as well as how we structure taxation and benefits.

Of course, the unmarried and unpartnered portions of the population vary among demographic groups. As Pew pointed out:

Among those ages 25 to 54, 59 percent of Black adults were unpartnered in 2019. This is higher than the shares among Hispanic (38 percent), white (33 percent) and Asian (29 percent) adults. For most racial and ethnic groups, men are more likely than women to be unpartnered. The exception is among Black adults, where women (62 percent) are more likely to be unpartnered than men (55 percent).

As a society, we have to start asking ourselves whether it is fair and right to continue to reward and encourage marriage through taxation and policy when fewer people — disproportionately Black ones — are choosing marriage or finding acceptable partnerships.

Is marriage always the ideal? And should single people pay a loner tax — part of what The Atlantic’s Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell in 2013 called “institutionalized singlism” — for not pursuing it?

In 2013, when Arnold and Campbell were completing their analysis, they found that “over a lifetime, unmarried people can pay upward of $1 million more than their married counterparts for health care, taxes and more.”

I have been married. I no longer am. I do not see remarriage in my future. It is not an ambition I possess. And I see nothing wrong with that. But I am also keenly aware of the nudging of those around me, who are married or aspire to be and who falsely assume that an eventual marriage is the only way to be truly happy and whole, to have completed the checklist of life. I rebuke all of that.

To each his (or her) own, I say. And that includes the happily single and happily partnered people who don’t want to marry.

There is clearly a case to be made when children are involved that they benefit from more parenting and more money. This doesn’t necessarily mean marriage, but it often does. As the Brookings Institution explained in 2014:

Children raised by married parents do better at school, develop stronger cognitive and noncognitive skills, are more likely to go to college, earn more and are more likely to go on to form stable marriages themselves. Using our own benchmarks of success at different life stages, developed as part of the Brookings Social Genome Model (now a partnership with the Urban Institute and Child Trends), we find similar patterns.

But what of the adults who have no children or whose children are now adults?

Paul Dolan, a behavioral scientist at the London School of Economics, says that while men, in the aggregate, could benefit from marriage because it calms them down and makes them take fewer risks, women, again in the aggregate, don’t receive the same benefits. On the contrary, according to Dolan, the happiest subgroup is women who never marry or have children.

This, of course, could be debated until we are all blue in the face. There are plenty of responsible men who don’t need a wedding ring as an anchor, and there are plenty of married mothers who would argue that their families are the lights of their lives.

But the point remains: Marriage as the prevailing ideal is losing its grip. And the stigma of being unmarried is also losing its grip, as it should. Now government policy that rewards the married while punishing the single must also loosen up.

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