The American Dream”: Once, the term called to mind a particular economic and social progression through life—a progression that almost invariably included work, marriage, family, and homeownership.
Today, far from conjuring that concept of positive progression, the phrase “American Dream” calls forth an almost weary reaction from those who are keenly aware of still-high unemployment and the declining labor force participation rate.
Civic-minded citizens fret for the future of the American Dream—not simply because they perceive a reduction of economic opportunity in the United States, but, just as importantly, because they perceive a lack of interest in what opportunity does exist.
That lack of interest extends—perhaps especially—to what we would traditionally think of as “non-economic” or “social” opportunities that nonetheless have great bearing on the economy.
As Heritage Foundation scholar David Azerrad said in an address to the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce last month, “When it comes to the American Dream, the family is not a tangential social or religious issue; it is a crucial economic one that is deeply intertwined with mobility.”
It would seem, though, that many young Americans today think the family is tangential to success. The proportion of unmarried Americans is at an all-time high, as is the median age of first marriage among those who do marry. Likewise, the fertility rate is at an all-time low—while the proportion of children born to single mothers is a staggering 40 percent among younger cohorts.
In their report “Defending the Dream: Why Income Inequality Doesn’t Threaten Opportunity,” Azerrad and his colleague Rea S. Hederman, Jr. explain that this poses an obstacle to “the American Dream”:
Of the plethora of statistics linking the collapse of the family to a host of social ills, one in particular stands out: Being raised in a married family reduces a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80 percent. … Studies also show that the negative effects of being raised in a single-parent home are not confined to childhood: They continue into adulthood and thus have far-reaching implications for economic mobility. “Children living in single-parent homes are 50 percent more likely to experience poverty as adults when compared to children from intact married homes,” writes [marriage expert Robert] Rector.
Obviously, marriage is not a guarantee that the two parties to it or their children will automatically be economic contributors and upwardly mobile, nor is the breakdown of a particular marriage a guarantee that the former parties to it and their children will not be economic contributors or downwardly mobile. In general, though, those who care about economic mobility have a vested interest in marriage. Americans face this choice: We can either redefine “the American Dream” to exclude marriage and include an unprecedented degree of dependence on government—or we can attempt to revive the cultural importance of marriage.
Oklahomans, especially, face this choice, for we’ve created a kind of marriage paradox. We’re not so skeptical of marriage as our fellow Americans who are forgoing it entirely. We’re a marrying bunch—likely to enter marriage about two years sooner than the average American and also more likely to be or have been married than the average American. At the same time, we’re not living up to our own ideals: We have one of the highest divorce rates in the country.
The sooner we recognize, along with Princeton scholar Robert George, that “the market economy and the institution of marriage … will, in the end, stand or fall together,” the better—for both the market economy and the institution of marriage.
Tina Korbe Dzurisin is OCPA’s policy impact director.