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    02.29.12 Professor Marsha Garrison on Marriage and Family and Her New Book, Marriage at a Crossroads
    Professor Marsha Garrison

    In light of the ongoing debate about marriage in the United States and recent Census statistics about marriage and family makeup, professor Marsha Garrison’s new book, Marriage at a Crossroads, is particularly timely. She co-edited the book with Columbia University professor Elizabeth Scott and it will be published later this year by Cambridge University Press.

    “The institution of marriage is at a crossroads,” Garrison says in a recent interview. “Although marriage continues to be the preferred family form in this country, sweeping social and economic changes in recent decades have diminished its importance as a core institution.” She points to unmarried cohabitation, the increase of single-parent families, and more children living in divorced or never-married households as key indicators of societal change. For example, she refers to recent Census statistics that reveal that the proportion of the U.S. population that is married fell to its lowest level on record (51 percent). Likewise, more than 40 percent of all U.S. births and more than 50 percent of births to women under 30 are nonmarital.  These changes, she says, “have generated substantial academic interest and no small amount of political controversy.”

    Marriage at a Crossroads captures the complexity of the debate about marriage within an interdisciplinary framework. The authors have backgrounds in law, sociology, demography, and economics,  and address questions related to why people marry and why they don’t, the economics of marriage, the rise of cohabitation, and heterosexual and same-sex marriage from theoretical and public policy perspectives.

    “The decline of marriage and rise of nonmarital birth are significant to policy makers for two reasons,” said Garrison. “First, cohabitation – which has increased dramatically – is much less stable than marriage. Children born to cohabiting couples are therefore more likely to experience their parents’ separation, as well as the emotional and financial risks that typically accompany a parental break-up. Second, in the United States, the likelihood of nonmarital birth varies sharply based on race and education; the nonmarital birth rate for white college graduates is 2%, while that of black high school dropouts is 96%. The decline of marriage thus reinforces other forms of disadvantage.”

    Garrison argues that current debate must be informed by the best available evidence in order to advance societal understanding of marriage and other family forms and to enable policy makers to evaluate competing policy alternatives that are the subject of current debate. “Empirically grounded analysis can offer a neutral lens that may enhance understanding and even produce consensus across ideological divides,” she says.

    Listen to the podcast.