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The State of Our Unions: An Interview with W. Bradford Wilcox

May 23, 2022
By W. Bradford Wilcox

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.

Bradford Wilcox (PhD) is an American sociologist. He serves as Director of the National Marriage Project and Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He recent co-authored a study for the Institute for Family Studies, “The Divided State of Our Unions: Family Formation in (Post-) Covid-19 America,”

1. What is the state of marriage and fertility in America in 2022?

There is bad news and good news to report about marriage and fertility in America. The bad news is that the marriage rate and the fertility rate have never been so low as they were in 2022. Too many Americans have neither the means nor the motivation to form a family today. For instance, more than a quarter of young adults today will never have children, and more than one third will never marry. These trends will leave millions of Americans kinless as they head into middle and late age.

The good news is that the increasingly selective character of marriage and childbearing means that marriage is getting more stable and the children who are being born today are more likely to be raised by their own stably married parents. So the kids being born today, especially to married parents, will be more likely to enjoy a stable family life in the coming years than their fellow citizens born a while ago.

2. You recently completed an in-depth report called “The Divided State of Our Unions” for the Institute for Family Studies. This report details, among other things, shocking disparities in family formation along the lines of class, religion, and even political party affiliation. What do you believe best accounts for these disparities?

We found that COVID supercharged polarization in America. As COVID wanes, America looks more divided than ever in terms of income, religion, and politics. As I wrote in Newsweek, for instance, interest in marriage and childbearing varied a great deal by these three factors:

“The rich, the religious and Republicans reported the greatest overall increase in the ‘desire to marry’ while the poor, secular Americans and Democrats reported less or no increase in marriage interest, according to a new YouGov survey of men and women aged 18-55 by the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and the Wheatley Institution.

“At the same time, 18-to-55-year-old Americans’ post-pandemic interest in childbearing fell seven percentage points since last year. But the “desire to have a child” tanked much more among poor, secular and Democratic Americans than it did among their more affluent, religious and conservative fellow citizens.”

What we seem to be seeing is that family formation depends more than ever on “means” and “motivation.” Those with the means to marry and have kids more readily — the affluent — are today more likely to be emerging from COVID with a desire to form a family. But it is not just money.

It is also the case that those with the “motivation” — those who hold a more familistic view, one that prioritizes marriage and family life, are also more likely to be open to forming a family as COVID recedes. So the religious and Republicans are more family-oriented as we go forward. This suggests growing polarization in who has families in America along the lines of class, religion, and political identity.

3. How are Christian families faring in the midst of such a precipitous decline in marriage and fertility rates over the past decades?

Christians are doing relatively better in forming families and in maintaining their families than non-religious Americans. They marry at higher rates, enjoy greater marital quality, and are less likely to land in divorce court. And, again, their relative advantage seems to be heightened by COVID.

Churchgoing Americans seem to be about 40 percent less likely to end up getting divorced, compared to their peers who don’t marry, according to Professor Tyer VanderWeele at Harvard. So faith is a force for stronger families, on average.

But, at the same time, churchgoing young adults are less likely to marry and have children than would have been the case a half century ago. So the church needs to be thinking about ways to make marriage and family more appealing and accessible to today’s young adults.

4. What role, if any, has COVID-19 and other factors played in the narrowing divide between the rich and poor in terms of childbearing?

Historically, poor women have had more children than middle- and upper-class women. But in our recent YouGov survey, we saw interest in childbearing decline more among poor Americans. This raises the possibility that fertility may fall more among poor and working-class Americans than among affluent Americans. It is too early to tell if this attitudinal trend will show up in actual birth trends. But my colleagues at the Institute for Family Studies are going to be tracking this possibility.

If it comes to pass that poor women start seeing a dramatic decline in their fertility, it will be a tragic scenario. It will result in bad news because right now marriage is already falling dramatically among poor and working class Americans. If childbearing also falls among this group, that means a large share of poor or working class Americans would have no kin. And being kinless in middle age and older age is extraordinarily difficult, both emotionally and financially.

5. Your recent IFS report posits that America is heading toward what you term the “family polization scenario.” What aspects of American life would need to change in order for it to trend in the direction of a “renaissance scenario”? Can you briefly define these terms?

What we mean by family polarization is that only rich, religious, and Republican Americans marry and have children in large numbers; whereas poor, secular, and Democratic Americans end up being much less likely to form families. I think this is where we are headed.

But a renaissance scenario would be one where marriage and childbearing are rising across the board, without differences by class or culture. That would be a much better scenario for our country. But right now, it seems unlikely.

6. As a Roman Catholic speaking to Protestant evangelicals, what do you see that evangelicals could be doing to better support and promote marriage and family formation?

Evangelicals, especially evangelical elites, pay too much attention to what the secular culture is preaching, teaching, and promoting. They do not adequately appreciate that the secular culture is dying, demographically and otherwise, and that it has very little to offer them. This is especially true when it comes to gender, marriage, and family life. 

Evangelicals need to be more confident regarding the value of their own heritage when it comes to dating, marriage, and family life. That does not mean we are going back to 1955 or even 955. But it means that they can and should recover wisdom from their own traditions when it comes to marriage and family.

They need to understand, for instance, the social science that tells us that men, women, and children who are embedded in married families and are churchgoing are much more likely to be flourishing — financially, socially, and psychologically — than those who are single and childless. And this makes sense, of course, because, as Aristotle taught us, we are social animals. We are more likely to flourish when we are throwing ourselves into in-person communities — communities of faith, family, and in our localities. This is especially true in a world where so many people are falling for the simulacra of community, the virtual world, which is also a dead end. So, evangelicals need to be bolder about calling men and women to the vocation of marriage and family life and the need to participate in person in your local church community.

This means more preaching, teaching, and ministry related to dating, marriage, and family life; more social opportunities for unmarried young adults; more sermons on fidelity and forgiveness in marriage and family life; more retreats for married couples, and so on. Here, ministries like Communio and Focus on the Family offer a range of constructive programs.

It also means that evangelical churches must specifically improve their ministries for men and women. For instance, many young men today tell me they have not been given any clear advice about what it means to be a man. And many of the young women I speak to express frustration with the ways in which many of the young men in their life are unfocused, incapable of commitment, and lacking drive. Evangelical men’s ministries should take decisive steps to give men the skills and the vision they need to thrive as men in the family, the workplace, and the church.

Steps like these will help strengthen and deepen the stability and quality of evangelical family life. And make for happier and more faithful evangelicals, as well.


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