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Gay Marriage Critics Are Misguided

July 16, 2005
By Gene C. Gerard

One of the strongest criticisms of gay marriage is that it threatens the institution of marriage itself. James Dobson, the founder and leader of the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family, wrote a book devoted to this argument entitled Marriage Under Fire. In the book, Mr. Dobson warned, “…when the State sanctions homosexual relationships and gives them its blessing, the younger generation…quickly loses its understanding of lifelong commitments.” Rather than merely obtaining the same rights that heterosexual married couples enjoy, Mr. Dobson advised, “…marriage between homosexuals will destroy traditional marriage [because] this is the ultimate goal of activists.”

Critics of gay marriage are correct that marriage as a cultural institution appears to be waning. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 43 percent of marriages end in divorce within 15 years. The U.S. Census Bureau has calculated that the divorce rate is even higher, at approximately 50 percent. Most demographers believe the divorce rate is somewhere around 40 percent.

The average length of marriage today is eight years. A study by the Centers for Disease Control determined that one in 12 couples divorce within two years of marriage. Within five years of marriage 20 percent are divorced, and within ten years 33 percent are divorced. The number of divorced people in the American population has more than quadrupled, from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996.

However, contrary to the arguments put forward by Mr. Dobson and others, the divorce rate is not increasing due to the demand by gays and lesbians for marital rights. The culprit appears to be far less sinister, and much more pervasive. According to Steven P. Martin, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at The University of Maryland-College Park, who just released a monumental study of divorce in America over the last 30 years, the divorce rate is directly correlated to a lack of education, especially among women.

Dr. Martin’s study demonstrates that from 1970 to the 1990s, divorce rates declined by approximately one-half among recipients of a bachelor’s degree. By contrast, divorce rates were high and remained essentially constant among women without a bachelor’s degree. For some time now, social scientists have known that less educated people tend to have higher rates of divorce than the national average. Dr. Martin’s analysis demonstrates just how accurately education is correlated to the success and stability of marriage.

According to his study, among women who married in the early 1970s, 24 percent of those holding a bachelor’s degree were divorced within ten years, compared to 33 percent of women without the degree. Among women who married in the early 1990s, 16 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree were divorced within ten years. By contrast, 35 percent of women without the degree experienced a divorce, a striking difference of 19 percent.

Among women who married in the early 1990s, only 15 percent of those having earned a master’s or other advanced degree were divorced within ten years, compared to 39 percent of women who did not graduate from high school -- an astounding 24 percent difference. A five percent difference existed among men with the same variables.

The study concluded that between “1970 and the 1990s, educational attainment became an increasingly important predictor of marital stability.” Since the 1970s, divorce rates have declined for individuals with a bachelor’s degree. But for the majority of men and women without a bachelor’s degree, there has been no decline in the rate of divorce. Dr. Martin suggests, “that college graduates are the vanguard of a cultural shift away from divorce.”

Given the results of this study, those who are concerned about the institution of marriage should be criticizing the Bush administration for cuts in education, rather than gay marriage advocates. In February, the Bush administration announced severe cuts in federal funding for Pell Grants. Since 1973, Pell Grants have been the principal form of federal funding for low-income college students. The grants are only available to those demonstrating financial need. The average recipient of a grant comes from a family whose parents have a combined annual income of less than $35,000.

The Bush administration will eliminate Pell Grants for approximately 90,000 low-income students, affectively preventing them from completing their education. Another 1.3 million students will suffer a reduction in the amount of their grants. The Department of Education predicted a savings of $300 million as a result of the reductions. The cuts will be devastating in 2008, which is predicted to be the largest high school graduating class in American history.

Ironically, President Bush actually promised to increase Pell Grants during the presidential campaign last fall. However, the maximum amount allowable under the grants was frozen by the Bush administration in the fiscal year 2005 education budget. This was the third year in a row that the administration froze or reduced the maximum allowable for the grants.

The divorce rate in America is a concern. But accusing gay marriage advocates of contributing to the demise of the cultural institution of marriage is misguided. It appears that a lack of education is largely responsible. Given that, the Bush administration deserves much of the criticism of late.

Gene C. Gerard taught history, religion, and ethics for 14 years at a number of colleges in the Southwest and is a contributing author to the forthcoming book Americans at War, by Greenwood Press.

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