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The real threat to marriage

The real threat to marriage

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Marriage in Wisconsin isn’t doing too bad if you look at the latest numbers from the state.

But there’s still a big problem. And it has nothing to do with gay couples.

First the good news:

Wisconsin’s marriage rate, which had been falling since 1980, has leveled off in recent years. And that was before gay couples won the right to marry here.

The hundreds of marriage licenses being issued to same-sex couples this year will almost certainly raise Wisconsin’s marriage rate. Many of these gay and lesbian couples have been in committed relationships for decades.

As for divorce, Wisconsin’s rate fell during the 1980s and 1990s, but it has remained relatively flat over the last decade. In fact, last year’s divorce rate was the lowest in decades, according to annual reports by the State Vital Records Office.

There’s more good news: Young people are waiting longer to tie the knot. The average age of a first (and hopefully only) marriage in Wisconsin has slowly increased to 26 for women and 28 for men.

That should encourage more mature decisions, so more people get hitched for the right reason — for lifelong love and companionship, not because of a rash decision or unwanted pregnancy.

But there’s still a big demographic problem that’s not about sexual orientation or divorce.

The marriage rate for people with college degrees is on the rise. That’s a positive. But the marriage rate for less educated Americans is plummeting.

“To me, it’s quite troubling,” said Christine Whelan, a clinical professor of consumer science at UW-Madison who has studied marriage. “It’s turning marriage into an elite enterprise.”

Education also seems to reduce the chance of divorce during the first 10 years. And two parents generally are better than one for children, a lot of research suggests. Marriage tends to reduce the likelihood of poverty and increases social networks and stability. Yet while a good marriage is good for kids, a bad marriage can be bad for kids.

So what’s the answer to encouraging more and better marriages? That’s complicated. Yet Whelan suspects children growing up in bad neighborhoods and in poverty, who may not have trust in their basic needs, may be much less likely to invest in education that leads to success, and apparently more stable marriage.

But more research is needed.

Wisconsin should strive to help all kinds of families be strong.

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