We often hear that marriage is a panacea for our problems — as a nation as a whole, and especially for the black community, in which more than 70 percent of children are now born to unmarried women.
Less discussed are the societal factors contributing to this phenomenon.
Let's start with this: While marriage may be losing a bit of its luster for some, it is still a desirable institution for most.
According to a Gallup poll released Friday, a majority of American adults (54 percent) are married. Another fifth have been married or did not classify a marital status. Yet another fifth has never married but wants to.
And among younger people, nonwhites were less likely than whites to be married, but they were more likely to say that they wanted to be. Only 6 percent of whites and 12 percent of nonwhites said that they had never been married and didn't want to get married.
So most Americans — both whites and minorities — still believe in marriage, but there are factors working against marriage for many, factors that need to be acknowledged.
One is mass incarceration.
In the two decades preceding the Great Recession, the American prison population nearly tripled, according to the Pew Center on the States. And make no mistake: Mass incarceration rips at the fabric of families and whole communities. Related to mass incarceration is the disastrous drug war, which essentially has become a war on marijuana waged primarily against young black men, even though they use the drug at nearly the same rate as whites.
Then there's the Aid Elimination Provision of the Higher Education Act, a provision that took effect in 2000. It denied financial aid to students with drug convictions.
Add to that the explosion in student loan debt, which has passed the trillion-dollar mark, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Such debt is now held by a record one in five households, said a Pew report last year.
This debt crisis is particularly hard on black students. According to a report last year by the Center for American Progress: "African-American and Latino students are especially saddled with student debt, with 81 percent of African-American students and 67 percent of Latino students who earned bachelor's degrees leaving school with debt. This compares to 64 percent of white students who graduate with debt."
The debt burden is having a significant impact on marriage. A survey published in May by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants showed that 15 percent of respondents delayed marriage because of student loan debt.
Furthermore, for the poorest Americans there are marriage penalties built into many of our welfare programs. As the Heritage Foundation has pointed out: "Marriage penalties occur in many means-tested programs, such as food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, day care and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The welfare system should be overhauled to reduce such counterproductive incentives."
This is not to explain away why people don't marry or delay marriage or have children before marriage, but to give the discussion context.
In a report financed by the Justice Department a decade ago, Donald Braman, a George Washington University law professor, argued, "For generations, social institutions from slavery and segregation to broadly punitive criminal sanctions have borne down unremittingly on poor and minority families and communities."
One can't bemoan the breakdown of the family — particularly the black family — without at least acknowledging the structural and systematic forces working against its cohesion.
© 2013 New York Times News Service