peakers and attendees at the World Congress of Families on Wednesday discussed the nation’s declining birth and marriage rates and put the focus on the economic and societal impacts of the trend.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, speaking at a plenary panel about solutions to reverse the “crisis of the American family,” focused on poverty reduction. Brownback argued that work, education and family structure are “the three big things that if you get them right, you can get your way out of poverty.”
The World Congress of Families, a four-day conference on the “natural family” — defined by the organization as a family centered around a married man and woman — has made finding a solution to the decline of marriage and birth a key part of the event.
Throughout the day, others speakers advanced arguments for the cause of the decline in marriage and why they believed that decline would hurt society.
In 2012, one out of every five adults ages 25 and older had never been married, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s double the unmarried rate in 1960 and an all-time high, according to the report.
On Wednesday, Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, presented data on what he called the “marriage trap.”
He said that declining birth and marriage rates are a negative feedback cycle. When one generation has fewer children or more broken marriages, the next generation reports wanting fewer children and has weaker marriage aspirations, he said.
Regnerus also said policy solutions would be difficult.
“We have a hard time stimulating marriage directly,” said Regnerus. “Marriage doesn’t respond to policy that way.”
Regnerus was the author of a study that purported to show that children of same-sex couples had worse outcomes than those with heterosexual parents. His findings and research methodology were questioned.
At the panel, he responded to an audience member who asked about other studies on same-sex parenting by saying, “I’m not going to do anything on the subject anytime soon because right now we’ve got to wait a while to see the influence of same-sex marriage on children.”
Other speakers, like Rafael Cruz, a pastor better known as the father of presidential candidate Ted Cruz, accused social welfare programs of disincentivizing marriage.
“Families that are split are awarded handouts,” Cruz told the clapping crowd. “It promotes the destruction of the family.”
Wendy Ulrich, a psychologist and former president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychologists, warned listeners that “just being married or staying married is not enough to produce these positive outcomes.”
She encouraged couples to take responsibility for their marriage, which she said must be “soul-satisfying” and healthy — not merely “un-divorced.”
In spirited conversations that took place between sessions and after speakers had left the stage, audience members grappled with the range of arguments offered by the speakers.
Conference-goer Spencer Conners said that he strongly believes that promoting marriages will have positive effects on children and the economy.
But he didn’t agree with Rafael Cruz’s opinion that gay and transgender people should not get rights, and praised Utah’s LGBT nondiscrimination law as a model of how compromise is necessary, even in the face of strong beliefs.
“If I really believe that traditional marriage is good for society, how do we decide what goes into policy and regulations?” Conners asked. “It requires that everyone has freedom to voice their opinions. That’s when it gets difficult.”
Daniel Allen, a graduate student at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, said he and his wife consider themselves socially conservative but drew on their experience teaching underprivileged kids in Jackson, Miss. when judging speakers’ comments.
He said he wondered if marriage was really the solution to the issue of poverty in the U.S., or whether there were more systemic issues at work. He said he sometimes gets “fearful that conferences like this, there’s too much of ‘If we just do this, it’ll work.'”
“There’s this thrust to make it so black and white that if we get married that’ll solve our problems,” Allen said on Tuesday. “All our social problems are really complex.”