If you have access to a computer or a television then in the last few days you saw a headline, heard a news brief, or read a blog post that gave the impression that marriage is going the way of the eight track and the VCR; soon to be relic that American kids will one day point to in a museum and ask, "What's that?" A Google search for "Marriage is obsolete" renders over one million hits, thanks to a new study out from the Pew Research Center and Time which found that 4 in 10 Americans responding to the survey consider marriage "obsolete." That finding soon became a headline that took on a life of it's own, even though it doesn't really tell the story of what those polled really think about the institution of marriage. Here's a hint: the majority of them made it clear on every other question that they actually consider the benefits bestowed by marriage important for families.
Though 4 in 10 called marriage "obsolete...69% say the trend toward more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them is a bad thing for society. And a majority (61%) still believe that a child needs both a mother and a father to grow up happily."
So what explains this disconnect between people claiming that they don't believe marriage is important, but that they also don't believe that single women raising children is a good thing?
As I explained on MSNBC's "The Dylan Ratigan Show", part of this disconnect is generational. Younger Americans, millenials in particular, are increasingly as likely to say that the All American family looks like "The Kids Are All Right" a family featuring two lesbian moms, as they are to say that it looks like "The Cosby Show." Their attitudes on what constitutes a family are simply more fluid. But another growing disconnect is class status.
More than ever before, having a college degree is emerging as a key indicator of whether or not a person decides to get married before having a child. Despite the fact that the percentage of children born to single mothers has skyrocketed from 5% to 41% over the last 50 years, and has increased to over 70% among black Americans, the Pew study "finds that college graduates are among the most likely to reject the notion that marriage is becoming obsolete: only 27% agree, while 71% disagree."
Now before I get inundated with angry mail from single parents. Let me be clear. Successful families come in all shapes and sizes and an extraordinary single mother or father is certainly preferable to two lackluster married parents. But the numbers don't lie and the majority of children born to single mothers are not being born to women like Angelina Jolie, Edie Falco or Sandra Bullock. These women have the financial stability to insure that their children will have access to world-class health care, not to mention every educational opportunity that money can buy, as well as access to a host of positive male role models. (Brad Pitt anyone?) Many single moms do not.
(Click here to view a slideshow of high profile single moms.)
Single motherhood remains a key indicator for whether or not a child will grow up in poverty. As the Pew Study notes, "in 2008, the median household income of married adults was 41% greater than that of unmarried adults, even after controlling for differences in household size." In congressional testimony Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, cited the rise in single motherhood as one of the biggest culprits in the rise of childhood poverty. Poverty remains a key indicator for whether a child will graduate
high school and in the inner cities dropping out of high school remains a key indicator for eventual incarceration.
Does this mean that no one should be allowed to have children without the government's stamp of approval in the form of a marriage certificate? Of course not. I don't think there's a person on the planet that wouldn't cheer if Oprah Winfrey decided to adopt a child, or two or three. Marriage doesn't make someone a good parent. But the financial and domestic stability marriage can provide can certainly help, a fact that wasn't lost on the overwhelming majority of those polled by Pew, but did seem to get lost in the media coverage that followed.
It would be easy to assume that one of the most high profile voices weighing in on the importance of so-called traditional families would be some high profile conservative, Sarah Palin perhaps, certainly not a rapper. But this week, Grammy nominee T.I. unwittingly lent his voice to this debate. In an emotionally raw letter penned in his prison cell he expressed his desire to make sure that his own children never end up where he is. His solution for insuring this: being an involved father. He writes:
"A lot of folks had fathers or father figures in the house to raise them into manhood. I'm not trying to make any excuses for my situation but my father was a hustler that lived in New York...My mother and grandparents did the best they could but I found my manhood in the trap and in prison systems. But I found it."
I'm someone who happens to believe that whatever goes on between consenting adults is nobody's business -- mine or the government's. But emphasis is on the words "consenting adults", because when children are brought into the equation it's not quite that simple. This reality is probably why there was such a disconnect on this poll between those of us who believe that as far as adults are concerned -- sure marriage is obsolete -- but who also know that as far as children are concerned the answer is not so easy.