One side is celebrating, the other rending their garments, but both sides are wondering if the outcome of the November presidential election might signal a springtime for traditional moral values in America. Rappers P. Diddy and Eminem doubtless turned more voters away from Kerry than they attracted, and, in all states where voters were asked to define marriage, the majority agreed on a union of one man and one woman. Nonetheless, a Middle American reaction to the prospect of legal approval of sodomy, while encouraging, is hardly much of a barometer by which to measure the nation’s cultural and social health. A better sense of just how “traditional” American values are can be gleaned from the latest Census Bureau data on the family. It might be time to sober up.
The family is the origin of civilized society, and every family begins with a marriage. How is marriage faring? Consider divorce rates over the last half-century. In 1950, there were 2.6 divorces per 1,000 population. The figure peaked in 1981 with 5.3 per 1,000 and has declined somewhat to 4.0 per 1,000 population in 2001. Is this good news? Not if we consider the data alongside the marriage rate. In 1950, there were 11.1 marriages per 1,000 population, in 1981, 10.6; and in 2001, only 8.4. Thus, the rate of divorce was 23 percent of that of marriage in 1950; it increased to 50 percent in 1981; and it hovers now around 48 percent, even as the overall marriage rate continues to fall.
Data from the past decade does not indicate any kind of turnaround. From 1990 to 2002, the percentage of the adult population (18 and over) that is married has dropped from 61.9 to 58.9 percent. Correspondingly, the percentage of the same population that has never married has risen from 22.2 to 24.4 percent, and the percentage that is divorced has risen from 8.3 to 10.0 percent. The retreat from marriage that began in 1960, when nearly 72 percent of the adult population was married, continues.
Births are another good gauge of a society’s health. Here, there is bad news and bad news masquerading as good news. First, illegitimacy continue to rise, as it has done for the last half-century. Indeed, the percentage of illegitimate births has increased nearly nine times from 1950 to 2001: from 4 percent to 34 percent of all births. Again, nothing in the past decade indicates a turnaround, and the current percentages of illegitimate births by race are alarming: In 2001, 68 percent of black, 59 percent of Puerto Rican, 40 percent of Mexican, 50 percent of Hawaiian, 60 percent of American Indian, and 28 percent of white births were illegitimate. Second, something that looks like good news, so far as births are concerned, is a recent rise in the total fertility rate (TFR). This figure measures whether a population is replacing itself by predicting the number of births that a woman will have during her childbearing years. In 1972, the TFR dropped below replacement level, reached its nadir in 1976 (1.7) and languished below replacement level until 2000, when it reached 2.1.
Alongside Europe, our commitment to childbearing may look vigorous (in Italy, deaths now outnumber births), but there are other factors to bear in mind. First of all, when only two thirds of births are within wedlock, marital fertility is below replacement level. Because an illegitimate child is significantly more likely to bear or sire an illegitimate child than is a child born to an intact marriage, marriage is not “replacing itself.” What’s more, it is doubtful, in the face of a continued rise in the average age of the population, that the TFR will long remain above replacement level. The median age of the population today is 36. It is projected to be 38 by 2050. While it is true that more children are born today than even during the Baby Boom, children diminish each year as a percentage of the total population. The Census Bureau does predict the TFR holding at 2.1 into 2010, but this rate will be buoyed by nonwhite fertility. By the same year, the TFR for Americans of European descent is projected to drop below replacement level.
Elsewhere on the childbearing front, families with three or more children are rare and getting rarer. They were 12 percent of all families in 1980 and 10 percent of all families in 2002. Making matters worse, nearly a quarter of all families with three or more children are single-parent families. Again, finding signs of a turnaround is difficult. The percentage of families with two or more children under the age of six is alarming: only six percent. What percentage of families have four or more children under the age of 18? Three percent. In the 1980’s, we passed a milestone in the nation’s demographic history. Today, more than half of our families (52 percent) have no children under the age of 18. Put another way, when we use the word family, we may think of a father and a mother and their minor children, but that composition describes the minority of “families” in America today.
The nation’s weak commitment to childbearing can be measured by the nearly universal use of contraception. Among the roughly 30 million currently married women between the ages of 15 and 44, 41 percent resort to surgical sterility (tubal ligation is much more common than vasectomy), 19 percent use some kind of hormonal contraceptive (the Pill, implants, injectables); while another 17 percent resort to some kind of device (a condom, diaphragm, or IUD.) Nonusers plus couples practicing Natural Family Planning total less than ten percent of married couples. Contraceptive use among unmarried women is less common, but not for the reasons we might hope; more than 70 percent of unmarried women have had sexual intercourse.
Abortions have dropped a little. They reached their peak in 1990 at 1.6 million per year and today hover around 1.3 million, more than twice the number in pre-Roe 1972. There are 674 black abortions for every 1,000 black live births; 20 percent of women who abort their babies are married; and somewhere between 1-in-4 and 1-in-3 women alive today have had an abortion. Consider that figure the next time you are sitting in a restaurant, movie theater, or church.
Two other measures of a nation’s commitment to children are the percentage of married women in the paid labor force and the use of institutional daycare. In 1970, 40 percent of married women were in the paid labor force; in 2002, the figure was 61 percent. Among women who have had a child in the last year, 58 percent are in the paid labor force. With so many working mothers, institutional daycare use remains common. Of the 8.5 million children ages three to five, 56 percent are in institutional daycare. Only 26 percent are actually cared for (we might even say reared) by their own parents. Moreover, daycare is not simply a last resort of the desperate working class. Among children ages three to five who come from households with incomes in the $50,000 to $75,000 range, 62 percent are in institutional daycare; among children of the same age from households with incomes greater than $75,000, 75 percent are in institutional daycare. Among this latter group, only 12 percent are actually reared by their parents. The highest percentage of children who are cared for by a parent on a daily basis come from households in which the annual income falls in the $40,000 to $50,000 bracket: 36 percent.
Giving an account of the causes of the current crisis in family life is well beyond the scope of this brief summary of the current data. Moreover, this task has been capably performed by historians who have identified, among other factors, the invention of divorce, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the welfare state, and the sexual revolution as culprits. The chief tool of the sexual revolution, contraception, is so widely promoted in public schools and on prime-time television that the likelihood of a nationwide resurgence in childbearing seems doubtful, to say nothing of a serious drop in divorce, a pathology to which contraception is tied. What is more likely is that the ultimate form of contraceptive sex, sodomy, will continue to gain more broad acceptance. While voters in 11 states overwhelmingly rejected legal recognition of homosexual unions, the fact that the matter had to be submitted to a vote is evidence of a society very close to (if not already in) the abyss. Even in the declining days of ancient Rome and Greece, where contraception (and then homosexuality) became more common, no government put the matter of sodomy before the public for approval. The forces who reject tradition are well practiced in planting their flag so far outside the mainstream that what we call moderate today would have been the fringe as little as half a century ago.