After raising six children together—three of their own and three adopted—Hollywood couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie finally plan to tie the knot. Pitt said in a recent People interview: “We’ve had a family, we’ve raised the kids. I am surprised how much [marriage] meant to me once you had that.”
But Bragelina’s kids-before-marriage lifestyle is no longer surprising, or even unusual. Delaying marriage has caught on with much of the less-glamorous side of American society as well. A recent study by University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project found 44 percent of children of moderately-educated Americans are born outside of marriage. The number is a large jump from only 13 percent in 1980.
Moderately-educated Americans—or “Middle America”—make up the nearly 60 percent of the population who have a high school diploma but not a four-year college degree. For woman under 30 in this group, the rate of children born outside marriage is even higher—53 percent.
Many in Middle America express reservations about marriage—sometimes because of a fear of commitment—but still want to have children, the report said. This leads to children who grow up in unstable homes, as cohabiting couples are twice as likely to break up before the child turns 12.
The State of Our Union report urges the president to look into strengthening marriages as a way to fight poverty, crime, and behavioral problems.
W. Bradford Wilcox, one of the study’s authors, said that as more children are born out of wedlock among the moderately educated, the families are “more likely to resemble those of high school dropouts, with all the attendant problems of economic stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.”
These children have a higher likelihood of suffering emotional and social problems, such as drug use, depression, attempted suicide, and dropping out of high school, according Why Marriage Matters, another report by the same team.
“On many social, educational, and psychological outcomes, children in cohabiting households do significantly worse than children in intact, married families, and about as poorly as children living in single-parent families,” the report said. The report also notes a higher rate of abuse in cohabiting households: “And when it comes to abuse, recent federal data indicate that children in cohabiting households are markedly more likely to be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused.”
The National Marriage Project, which has published the annual The State of Our Union reports since 1999, also offers policy suggestions to address the high rate of children out of wedlock. It prescribes ending marriage penalties in Medicaid and welfare—where low-income married couples can get up to 20 percent less in aid than single mothers. It also suggests tripling the child tax credit to encourage families to have children; making men more marriageable through apprenticeships; ending anonymous sperm donors; investing in marriage programs; and getting Hollywood to promote more positive messages about marriages.
Next year, they might also elicit help from those most affected by out-of-wedlock births—the children. In an interview with USA Weekend last year, Pitt said his children are pushing their parents to get married: “The kids ask about marriage. It’s meaning more and more to them. So it’s something we’ve got to look at.”