President Obama's State of the Union speech dominated headlines last week, but the state of our unions--marital, that is--was also in the news with the announcement of John and Elizabeth Edwards' separation. The Edwardses will join the ranks of the 2% of Americans who told Census takers in 2000 that they were separated.
The Census asked about marital status for the first time in 1880. From 1880 to 1940, Census demographers Rose Kreider and Tavia Simmons tell us, the categories on the decennial form were "single," "married," "widowed" and "divorced." In 1950 "separated" was added. This year's form also asks about "unmarried partners."
In addition to those who indicated they were separated in the 2000 Census, another 10% were divorced and 7% widowed. The big categories were never married (27%), a category that has been growing rapidly, and married (54%), a category that has declined. The vast majority of separations for white women end in divorce within five years.
Most Americans will marry during their lifetimes. The married portion of the population has declined in part because of changing gender roles and the growing acceptance of cohabitation and divorce. Increases in the age of first marriage have also contributed. In 1950, the median age for a first marriage for men was 23. In the 2008 American Community Survey Census data, it was 28. For women, the median age increased from 20 to 26 over that time span.
The number of people who have never married has been rising sharply. In 1950 19% of 25- to 34-year-old men had never married. That has doubled and is now 39%. For young women in the same age bracket, those numbers have nearly tripled, increasing from 11% to 30%.
Ben Wattenberg's and Louis Hicks' The First Measured Century reports that the divorce rate "rose unevenly but substantially from 1900 to about 1967, when the introduction of no-fault divorce led to a doubling of the rate during the subsequent decade." The divorce rate declined slightly in the 1980s and has leveled off.
Most married Americans today, 55%, say their unions are better than their parents' marriages, and only about 3% volunteer they are worse. Most married people are happier than people who are not married, although they are not sanguine about other people's marriages.
In a December 2009 CBS ( CBS-news-people ) News poll 63% said they knew someone who had been unfaithful to a spouse. There were small differences in responses of men and women (65% and 62%, respectively, knew someone who cheated). But there were sharp differences by education and income levels, with those with higher levels of formal education and higher incomes more likely to know someone who was unfaithful. Interestingly, in the raw data about divorce there appears to be a divorce "divide," in which people with college degrees are less likely to divorce than those without them.
The importance we still give to the diminished institution of marriage is shown by responses to survey questions about divorce. In the CBS poll 24% said divorce should be easier to obtain than it is now, 53% more difficult and 14% that it should stay as is. Twenty years ago in an identically worded question from the National Opinion Research Center, the numbers were almost the same, 25%, 51% and 18%, respectively. Still, Americans consider divorce "morally acceptable," and a plurality in the CBS poll, 46%, said they favored divorce if a marriage isn't working out. Thirty-eight percent were opposed.
Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center notes that "few areas of society have changed as much as the family has over the last generation. The basic structure of family life has been reshaped, and family values and related attitudes have also undergone paradigmatic shifts." Marriage is less central and divorce is more common, especially for the vast majority of those who separate.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.