This week, the National Marriage Project is releasing a study charting the decline of the two-parent family among what it calls the “moderately educated middle” — the 58 percent of Americans with high school diplomas and often some college education, but no four-year degree.
This decline is depressing, but it isn’t surprising. We’ve known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.
But the Marriage Project’s data suggest that this paradox is fading. It’s no longer clear that middle America does hold more conservative views on marriage and family, or that educated Americans are still more likely to be secular and socially liberal.
That division held a generation ago, but now it’s diminishing. In the 1970s, for instance, college-educated Americans overwhelmingly supported liberal divorce laws, while the rest of the country was ambivalent. Likewise, college graduates were much less likely than high school graduates to say that premarital sex was “always wrong.” Flash forward to the 2000s, though, and college graduates have grown more socially conservative on both fronts (50 percent now favor making divorces harder to get, up from 34 percent in the age of key parties), while the least educated Americans have become more permissive.
When Douthat says that it’s no longer clear that Middle America holds more conservative views on marriage, I can only assume he is referring to marriage between a man and a woman. Then again, as we saw in California, even liberal parts of the country have opposed same-sex marriage.