Bradford Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. His research on marriage, religion, and family life has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other national publications. Wilcox, a devout Roman Catholic, is an associate professor of sociology and oversees the publication of an annual report on marriage in America entitled, The State of Our Unions. We talked about why research on the family is so sensitive and what it’s telling us about the future of our culture.
Tell us a little bit about the National Marriage Project. The project aims to assess the health of marriage in America with an eye toward the impact that marriage has, particularly on kids, in the United States. We look at a range of cultural and policy measures that can be undertaken to strengthen the fortunes of marriage and family life in the United States.
President Barack Obama has made ending income inequality a cornerstone of his domestic policy to end poverty, yet you say it’s not important. [A] study from Harvard and Berkeley suggests that income inequality, per se, doesn’t have a lot to do with the odds that poor kids will move up the economic ladder in America. By contrast, things like growth at the local level, the health of marriage at the local level, the health of schools at the local level, but also things like economic and racial segregation, are important for affecting poor kids’ opportunities to live out the American dream.
Sometimes it is hard to parse what is cause, what’s effect, and what’s a correlation. Right? This is basically correlational data from this Harvard-Berkeley data set. But it is interesting to note … the strongest correlation between a community’s ability to foster the American dream and any other factor is family structure. Communities like the Salt Lake City metro area with high percentages of two-parent families are much more likely to help poor kids move up the economic ladder.
You compare and contrast Salt Lake City with a city like Atlanta. The reality is there is a high level of single parenthood throughout much of the South. This new data set from Harvard and Berkeley indicates that high levels of single parenthood might be one of the factors—as well as economic and racial segregation in many of those cities—that is retarding, or limiting, economic mobility for poor kids throughout much of the Southeast.
Another area of study in your career has been fertility. What key insights have you found over the last dozen or so years in your study of this area? There’s obviously a lot of talk about American exceptionalism, and one area where that’s the case is fertility. Compared to many European countries, we’ve had a higher level of fertility that’s been closer to the replacement level of fertility, which is having 2.1 kids per woman on average. That level of fertility allows the population to remain stable. In the last five or six years in the wake of the Great Recession, we’ve seen the fertility rate fall to a 25-year low of about 1.8 or 1.9 kids per woman on average.
We’re not falling to the low levels you see right now in places like Japan, Korea, Italy, or Spain. Those are countries with a real population crisis because they’re at very low levels of fertility. But we are at a level of fertility that’s much more common in a place like Northern Europe. We’re moving toward the European pattern when it comes to fertility, and that suggests that our exceptional tradition with regard to having kids may be going by the wayside.
Why is it a problem that fertility rates are lower? It’s not really a problem for the United States right now. [A rate of] 1.9 or 1.8 is not going to pose any major challenges to the American way of life, economically or otherwise. The problem, though, is facing countries in East Asia like Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea, and many countries in Southern Europe, where they are facing real depopulation. That’s going to affect their ability to have a vital and growing workforce, to pay for things like public pensions and welfare and medical care for the elderly, etc., as they see the ratio of older people to younger people growing, growing, growing. … I think for these economies in Southern Europe and East Asia they are going to be paying a big economic price for their depopulation