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Consumer Reports

Researcher fears for kids' future as marriage popularity sinks | (KRT) HACKENSACK, N.J. - New Jersey's Marriage Man is back.

With the release Wednesday of his National Marriage Project's annual report, Rutgers University Professor David Popenoe once again is lamenting the state of the American family, particularly the sagging popularity of marriage.

The message in this report, like its predecessors, is that wedding bells and parenthood are no longer inextricably linked, leaving children's future in peril.

Marriage, the report argues, is key to healthy child rearing, and is the "social glue" that attaches fathers to children. With ever fewer households containing children, Popenoe also predicts that children will be "pushed to the margins of society."

Thirty-one percent of children under 18 are living either with single parents or no parents at all, according to the 2000 census, up from 12 percent in 1960. Among black children, the surge has been even more startling. Thirty-three percent of black children lived without married parents in 1960; today, 62 percent do.

"Our goal is to focus the idea of marriage back to what it was: a place for children," said Popenoe, co-director of the project, and son of the marriage counselor who launched the "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" column in the Ladies' Home Journal.

"Children are less included in the institution of marriage than ever before - and that hasn't served children at all."

Dorian Solot, who heads the Alternatives to Marriage Project in Boston, responded to Popenoe's report as she has each year: with frustration.

"There's no question there are real problems for children. There are too many kids without health insurance, good child care, decent schools," she said.

"Unfortunately, marrying off their parents isn't going to solve those problems."

The findings of Popenoe and Co-Director Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, drawn from previously published data, show that:

_Even though many fathers are far more engaged than ever in their children's lives, the percentage of American children living apart from their biological fathers has doubled over the past four decades, from 17 percent in 1960 to 34 percent in 2000.

_The divorce rate continues to hover around 50 percent.

_Nearly 70 percent of Americans disagree with the statement that "the main purpose of marriage is having children," compared with 51 percent of Norwegians and 45 percent of Italians.

Wednesday's report is the fifth annual "state of the union," gauging the social health of marriage in America. Each year, its assessment has not been pretty.

Without reprieve, Popenoe and Whitehead have issued a steady drumbeat of gloom about the breakdown of the American family.

They have railed against cohabitation - which jumped tenfold from 1960 to 2000 - warning that it reduces the likelihood of marriage and increases the chance of divorce. They have lamented young adults' doe-eyed search for a soul mate, saying such idealism will lead to disillusionment or divorce.

They have concluded that men dodge marriage, and that they do so because they can get plenty of sex without it. They have argued that loose social mores have jeopardized the stability of society.

And they have advised women that if they truly want to snag a fellow, they ought to follow grandma's advice and play hard to get.

Not surprisingly, their approach has drawn steady fire. Critics dismiss Popenoe and Whitehead's contention that many of society's ills can be laid at the feet of the embattled institution of marriage. They say the causes and consequences of social change are more complicated, among them women's growing economic independence; the realization by many adults that parenthood is a choice, not a foregone conclusion; and the waning stigma of alternative family makeup.

"People can preach about marriage till they're blue in the face, but kids are going to continue to be raised in a variety of living arrangements, and it's better to identify and encourage the processes that produce healthy kids than to make a fetish out of one particular family structure," said Stephanie Coontz, marriage historian at Evergreen State College in Washington and co-chairwoman of the Council on Contemporary Families.

"Kids need consistent, firm discipline," Coontz continued. "They need to be raised with an assurance that the adults in their household love them, and that there are adults outside the household who love them, too. They need parents who play with them, in age-appropriate ways.

"Those things often do occur in a family with married parents, but you don't need a marriage to produce a healthy child."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services