Tabloid headlines about one more public figure's troubled married life sound a sordid finale to yet another sad, hard year for marriage. High-profile marital strains naturally draw the media spotlight. The challenges of getting and staying happily married, however, know no boundaries of fame or fortune.
Studies confirm what common sense tells us: Being married tends to produce positive results -- from higher household income to better education (and more enduring marriages) for the couple's children. No matter how far out of the public eye, then, private struggles in this most intimate of human relationships have serious social consequences. We might say marriage is our best social security investment.
So although celebrity marital crises would benefit from less scrutiny, we ought to pay far more attention to creating a culture that supports strong marriages. That's the story the scholars who recently released "The Marriage Index" don't want us to miss. They've generated a set of five indicators of the health of marriage in America, and the diagnosis is worrisome.
The index's five indicators, including rates of first marriages still intact and births to married parents, combine to yield a score of 60.3 out of a possible 100. In 1970, the score would have been 76.2.
In the economic arena, leading indicators only have to trend in the wrong direction to prompt widespread notice and calls to action. We recognize those markers as important to our future as a society.
But would there be a strong reaction if the number of babies born to unmarried mothers were to exceed 40 percent of all births? (It's a hair lower than that mark now, the latest data show.)
And where is the alarm over the fact that 70 percent of black children are born without a father willing to make marriage vows to their mother -- and a commitment to them?
"For any society that cares about its future, leading marriage indicators are as important as leading economic indicators," argue the authors of "The Marriage Index." A publication of the Institute for American Values, along with the National Center on African-American Marriages and Parenting, the report can be read and downloaded at americanvalues.org.
In Britain, some leaders have begun to take the state of marriage seriously, after years of official, not-so-benign neglect. For starters, they don't want government to shy away from requesting marital status.
"Marriage has almost disappeared from official forms, from official documents," Chris Grayling, Britain's shadow home secretary, said in an interview with The Sunday Times of London. "I think that needs to change."
Grayling's Conservative Party, expected to defeat the governing Labor Party in spring elections, is turning its attention to the importance of marriage to mend a "broken society."
"There is lots of evidence to say that if you are brought up in a family with two married parents you are more likely than not to have a decent, stable and secure upbringing and do well in life," Grayling said. "We should be proud of the institution of marriage. We should value it."
Prioritizing the health of marriage in public life begins with having the data to diagnose problems. But it also requires ideas to address the problems.
"The Marriage Index" provides both. Index authors David Blankenhorn and Linda Malone-Colon offer a robust 101 ideas for improving marital bonds -- not only for scholars and elected officials but for parents and couples, neighborhood activists and church leaders and media and entertainment pacesetters. Among suggestions:
** Form local councils or committees that seek to strengthen marriage and family life.
** Teach school courses about marriage and love through great works of literature, art and scholarship that examine these themes.
** Create a "new populist movement to empower marriage and families," led by community organizers and veterans of the civil rights and anti-poverty movements.
** End marriage penalties for low-income Americans in welfare policies.
** Establish a brief annual report from the White House on the state of fatherhood and marriage.
Simply having and publicizing a data-based marriage index would focus public attention and encourage action on these tasks and more.
The next steps are to help more Americans achieve their dreams for a lasting marriage and to ensure the most promising environment for more children. Doing so would put marriage back in the headlines -- for the right reasons.
Jennifer A. Marshall oversees the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society as director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in Grand Forks Herald