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The election night victory photograph tweeted by President Obama’s campaign captured it all: The Obamas wrapped in one another’s arms, an island of love amidst the whirlwind of presidential politics and public life.
The now-iconic photograph seems to affirm yet again that our president is a terrific husband and father. He gazes warmly at his wife, hugs and praises his daughters, and works hard. Those of us who grew up without our married mom and dad can especially appreciate the ways that Obama has sought to give his kids the stable family he did not have. We are trying our best to do that too.
During his presidency, Obama has said why fathers matter. This year he told Americans that gay marriage matters. Now, as scholars who are convinced that stable families make a world of difference for children, we would like to challenge him: Can he talk about—and can he lead America—on the vital question of how marriage matters for all children?
Few including our president seem to have noticed that even as the question of gay marriage has dominated public life for nearly a decade, marriage in the broad middle of our nation—among the nearly 60 percent of Americans who are high school educated but not college educated—has been falling apart. As recently as the 1980s, only 13 percent of children of moderately educated mothers were born outside of marriage. Now, this figure is approaching 50 percent. And in marked contrast to past calls for attention to changing trends in family structure, today almost none of our political and social leaders are talking about this dramatic change.
Why should our nation care? Marriage is not merely a private arrangement; it is also a complex institution that serves a range of private and public purposes. Marriage fosters small cooperative unions that enable children to thrive, shore up communities, and help family members to succeed during good times and to weather the bad times. Researchers are finding that the disappearance of marriage in what we might call “Middle America” is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in the same communities, a change that strikes at the heart of the American Dream.
Yet in the face of today’s marriage challenge, most of what we hear even from political and social leaders who think marriage is important is silence, tentativeness or, worse, despair. Even those who believe marriage matters seem to think that nothing can be done.
We beg to differ. In a new report called “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” just released in the annual journal “State of Our Unions,” we come together with colleagues to offer America’s leaders, including our president, a marriage agenda. Among our ten proposals for federal and state policies and cultural change to renew marriage in Middle America are to eliminate marriage penalties and disincentives for the poor, for unwed mothers, and for older Americans, and to help young men become marriageable men. We argue that even small, incremental changes will reduce suffering for children and their families and will yield significant cost savings for taxpayers.
At its root, the decline of marriage in Middle America imperils the middle class and fosters a society of winners and losers. Those born to married, well-educated parents are increasingly likely to have the same advantages when they become adults, graduating from four-year colleges and establishing marriages that are, on average, more stable and of better quality than in the recent past. But those born to fragmented families are increasingly likely to repeat their parents’ patterns and to experience the heartache, hardship, and risks that result. In America, marriage has always been and remains a vital pathway to making good on the American Dream. For the sake of today’s young people and their children, we invite our president and our nation’s leaders to join us in renewing marriage for all Americans in the years to come.
Elizabeth Marquardt of the Institute for American Values and W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia are authors of “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent