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Since the Massachusetts Supreme Court gave its opinion last November on who can get married, and a number of politicians have proposed a constitutional amendment to “defend� marriage, we thought it timely to examine how marriage and married couples fit into our demographic and economic landscape.

We had better hurry, because present trends indicate that, by the end of this decade, married couples will be only a minority of households in the U.S. That may be a surprise, but the rate at which people get married has been declining for decades. As a result, married couples are barely hanging on to their majority status. In 2003, they accounted for just 51.5 percent of all households. Thirty years ago 69 percent of all households were married couples.

Even as nuclear family households shrink as a percentage of total U.S. households, they remain an important engine in our national and local economies, and critical to many consumer markets. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 1 in 4 households may be in the married-with-children category, but they account for upward of $3 trillion annually in consumer spending, more than one-third (37 percent) of total consumer spending and about a quarter of the gross domestic product. Generally, households average $41,000 per year in consumer spending, but married-with-children average $58,000, or 42 percent more than all households. Their contribution to industries such as apparel (39 percent of total spending) and entertainment (40 percent) is disproportionate to their actual share of households.

The primary reason married couples are a shrinking share of households is that every year a smaller percentage of the unmarried young people choose to tie the knot. There were about 2.2 million marriages in the U.S. last year, about the same number as in 1975. A second reason is that for every two marriages, there is approximately one divorce. Last year we estimate that there were just over a million divorces. A more precise number for divorces is not available because four states have stopped reporting them.

Just over half (55 percent) of adult respondents to the Census Bureau's latest Current Population Survey said they were married and about 12 percent said they were divorced or separated. It is no small irony that at a time when millions of Americans who could get married anytime they wish choose not to, a segment of our society that is prohibited from getting married, in at least 49 states, wants to do so in such a big way.

The institution of marriage may be under stress, but the presence of gay or lesbian couples has nothing to do with it. The major source of stress on marriage and prospective married couples is an economic one. This is because while marriage has economic benefits, it also has economic costs that fewer people appear to be able or willing to accept.

Americans' age at the time of their first marriage, for example, is at an all-time high as most people now wait until they are in their late 20s to tie the knot. The 30- to 34-age-group is the first one in which most adults are married (59 percent). Between ages 35 and 75, two-thirds of the population is married (70 percent of men and 64 percent of women). But after age 75, married people are outnumbered by widows.

Social commentators like to point to the “sexual revolution� as the reason fewer young people are getting married. The reasoning is that freely available sex removes one of the grounds for marriage. Maybe so. But there are powerful economic forces at work that can make early marriage a prohibitively expensive venture.

The real inflation-adjusted median income of men ages 25 to 34, for example, has not risen in 30 years. According to the Census Bureau, in the early 1970s the median income (in constant dollars) of men that age was about $33,000. In 2002, it was about $31,000. The median income for women ages 25 to 34 in 2002 was about $22,000.

One factor is that millions of reasonably good paying jobs in the manufacturing sector, once available to high school graduates, have disappeared. But, at the same time, the cost of a college or graduate education, so essential to getting a better paying job, has risen to the point where most young adults would be bringing substantial debt to an early marriage. Rather than pooling resources at the outset of marriage, many young couples today face having to pay down combined debts, which is often not equally divided between bride and groom.

What's more, in many parts of the nation the price of housing has become virtually prohibitive for a buyer with less than a six-figure income. The median income in 2002 for married couples ages 25 to 34 was $57,500. Subtract taxes, and perhaps student loan payments, and not much of the nation's housing stock is affordable, and virtually no homes in a quality suburban school district.

One purpose of marriage is to give legal and financial protection to children until they become adults. Until about the mid-1980s, a majority of all married couples had children at home, and they represented the largest portion of American households. But now, at 24 percent, married-with-children households rank third in the national totals, behind married couples with no children (27 percent), and single people who live alone (26 percent).

Why is this so important? Well, as the percentage of households with children becomes smaller and smaller, there are an increasing number of communities across the nation where support for public education is evaporating. If support for quality public education diminishes, then one of the additional costs of becoming a parent will be paying for a private secondary school education, in addition to any higher education.

Another issue is the impact on retail sales of fewer married couples with children. These households traditionally spend substantially more on food, clothing and other necessities of life at local retail establishments than married couples without children or other household types. But if there is a drop to, say, 20 percent among U.S. households who are married couples with children, which has already happened in some localities, the negative impact on retail sales could be quite significant.

As long as the cost of two key elements of successful family formation, education and housing, keep rising much faster than the income young adults can earn, we should expect to get fewer married couples and consequently fewer married couples with children.

It would be more economically beneficial to the nation to redirect some of the mental energy aimed at preventing certain individuals from getting married to finding a way that more ordinary young people can afford to get married and, if they wish, have children.

Peter Francese is the founder of American Demographics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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