RICHMOND, Va. - Hampton University will open a "marriage summit" Tuesday, bringing together religious leaders, psychologists, public health workers and other experts to discuss the state of marriage and talk about how to reverse trends such as high divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births.
"We'll discuss the current crisis of marriage and parenting and focus on solutions, and how we can come together to start moving things in a better, more positive direction for families," said event coordinator Linda Malone-Colon, head of Hampton's psychology department.
The conference also will mark the launch of the school's National Center on African-American Marriages and Parenting. Led by Malone-Colon, the center at the historically black university in Hampton, Va., will conduct research and collect data about issues that affect black marriages and families, and provide resources to help parents.
Former NFL coach Tony Dungy and Chick-Fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy and his son, Donald, are honorary co-chairs of the two-day event. Organizers say they've gathered a diverse group of more than 100 religious leaders, psychologists and other counseling professionals, public-health workers and others affiliated with groups that range from the conservative Focus on the Family to the Omega Psi Phi black fraternity. Dungy and the elder Cathy aren't expected to attend.
W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said the conference is timely because of American society's ever-widening "marriage gap" that largely runs along racial and socio-economic lines. African-Americans and people of all races who lack college degrees have much higher rates of divorce and unmarried childbearing than white, college-educated people, said Wilcox, who isn't connected with the Hampton conference.
U.S. Census data show that 61 percent of first marriages remained intact in 2008, compared with 77 percent in 1970. Nearly 79 percent of adults reported being married in 1970, a figure that fell to 57 percent in 2008.
And according to a May report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 40 percent of children born in 2007 had unmarried mothers, up 21 percent from 2002 and 80 percent higher than in 1980. Birth rates for unmarried women rose for all races between 2002-2006, with Hispanic and black women showing the highest out-of-wedlock birth rates in 2006.
The figures are of concern because children born to single mothers generally are at higher risk of health, social and economic difficulties.
Hampton's marriage summit and similar efforts are in line with a campaign by President Barack Obama, whose own father left his family when Obama was 2.
"We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception," Obama said in a speech on Father's Day last year during his campaign. "We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child--it's the courage to raise one."
Recent marriage trends are partly rooted in economic shifts since the 1970s, as college-educated men have seen their incomes rise modestly while men without college educations have seen earnings fall, Wilcox said. That makes the latter group "less attractive as potential or ongoing husbands, as being a good provider is integrally tied to being good husbands."
But that's only part of the equation, as Americans have undergone what Wilcox calls an increase in "expressive individualism" over time.
"People are looking for happiness and fulfillment in their lives and relationships in ways that people would not have done two or three generations ago," he said. "People are expecting a high level of fulfillment in marriages, and it's difficult to sustain that day in and day out. That has increased the fragility of marriage in the U.S."
Malone-Colon noted that single motherhood also has become increasingly accepted, even glamorized in some circles, and those who disapprove have been branded as intolerant.
"We're not serving our children, us, or our country well. The evidence is there that it's not the best for the kid," she said. "It's not that some kids don't thrive, but overall, kids are more at risk when they're in a single-parent home rather than a married-parent home, or ideally a healthy married-parent home."
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