The Five Leading Indicators of Marriage

The Five Leading Indicators of Marriage

By Maggie Gallagher - October 7, 2009

How do you measure a marriage culture?

The Institute for American Values, in conjunction with the new National Center for African-American Marriage and Parenting has just released a new "Marriage Index" that for the very first time in American history creates a tool to measure the health of marriage in America.

It's a brilliant conceptual idea, long overdue. This is a GDP for marriage, a way to statistically sum up complex trends in a way that allows us to capture a core truth: Is marriage getting weaker or stronger?

The report (available at begins by asking key questions: "What helps us the most to thrive, as individuals and as a society? Money or marriage? Assets or relationships? Here's what we know: A large body of research suggests that the status of our marriages influences our well-being at least as much as the status of our finances."

So why, the report's authors ask, do we work so hard to create a consensus measure of our leading economic indicators and not our marriage indicators?

The leading economic indicators are not mere dry statistical artifacts; they are a living part of our intellectual, social, media and political culture. "These indicators are generally accepted by elites and by the broad public as both accurate and important. As a result, they matter. We read about them in publications and hear about them on TV. Policymakers and opinion shapers pay attention to them. If they are improving, we tend to rejoice. If they are declining, we tend to fret, and ask, 'What can we do?'"

But these authors point out: "There is no equivalent effort to focus on marriage. ... Consequently, policymakers and opinion leaders rarely seem to care about marriage trends, or even notice them."

Until now.

The Marriage Index is the product of a bipartisan group of scholars and leaders who selected five indicators as fundamental. What are these five?

(1) A marriage rate measure -- the proportion of adults under age 54 who are married. (The focus on younger Americans is in order to avoid conflating longer life and more widows with the decline of marriage.)

(2) A divorce measure -- the proportion of first marriages that are still intact.

(3) A marital happiness measure -- the proportion of married people who say their marriage is "very happy" (because quality matters, too).

There are also two child-centered measures:

(4) The proportion of babies who are born to married people.

(5) The proportion of all children who live with their own two married parents.

These last two are to many of us the most important. "Why devote two-fifths of a Marriage Index to children?" the authors ask. "These last two indicators concern more than just children: Fundamentally, they reflect the link between adults and children that marriage is designed to create and secure. At its essence, marriage is a social institution that, when it's working, meets social needs -- and perhaps the greatest of these needs is supporting the helpless offspring that result from the sexual union of two people."

So how are we doing on marriage? No one will be surprised to hear the answer: not well. Overall, since 1970 the combined Five Leading Marriage Indicators dropped from 76.2 percent to 60.3 percent.

But the news is not all bad. Since 2000, three of the five leading marriage indicators have actually stabilized or begun to improve: The proportion of first marriages that are intact plunged from 77 percent to under 60 percent between 1970 and 2000; it actually climbed three-tenths of a percent since 2000. The proportion of children living with their own married parents similarly ticked up half a percentage point. And the proportion of marriages that are "very happy" has been stable. We can learn to do better.

Of course, the very best scientific indicators will capture only a portion of why we really care about marriage. Maps are not roads. But that is precisely why they are useful.

(Maggie Gallagher is president of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 14 years.)

Copyright 2009, Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher

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