The American heart is closing to marriage and family. Can red states change that?

The American heart is closing. The signs, including dramatic drops in dating, marriage, and childbearing, are all around us.  

The falling fortunes of marriage and family across the nation can be traced back to cultural shifts (e.g., elite messaging celebrating “me-first” over “family-first” thinking), economic changes (e.g., young men’s eroding position in today’s workforce), and technological shifts (e.g., the ways in which social media discourages us from socializing in person and poison the relations between the sexes).

This is sobering news because we know that no group of men and women is happier now than married mothers and fathers, who are almost twice as likely to be “very happy” with their lives compared to their single, childless peers. In fact, a new study from the University of Chicago indicates the No. 1 reason that happiness rates are falling across the nation is the “decline in the married share of adults.” 

Unfortunately, most of our political and civic leaders have made their peace with the family’s falling fortunes. But there are exceptions, primarily in red states. States such as Utah and Florida, in particular, are trying to revive the fortunes of marriage and family via a range of public and civic initiatives. 

Take Florida. While the Sunshine State has not been untouched by the falling fortunes of marriage and family, with its marriage and fertility rates falling by about one-fifth in the last decade and a half, there are some encouraging policy and civic signs.

First, the state recently passed a $70 million initiative designed to strengthen fatherhood via a public messaging campaign and a range of educational programs across the state. Second, the state legislature also recently passed universal school choice, making Florida “number one when it comes to education freedom and education choice,” with “1.3 million students attending a school of their choosing,” as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) noted. And finally, DeSantis’s commitment to opening schools as quickly as possible in the wake of COVID-19 was a major sign the state put parents first.

Policies such as these explain why Florida is one of only 10 states that have seen the number of families surge in recent years. In fact, tens of thousands of families with children have migrated to the state in recent years, attracted by DeSantis’s COVID-19 policies, a vibrant economy, low taxes, a good climate, and strong educational options, including universal school choice and unusually affordable public universities.

On the civic side, the state is host to nonprofit groups such as “Live the Life,” an organization dedicated to forging strong and stable marriages across the Sunshine State via relationship education in schools and churches, weekend retreats, and community date night celebrations. The Institute for Family Studies recently evaluated a pilot program by Live the Life in Duval County that worked with local churches and community programs to strengthen marriages in the Jacksonville, Florida, area. The Live the Life program seems to have helped spearhead a 27% reduction in the divorce rate in Duval County in 2015-2017, compared to a state decline of 10% and a national decline of 6% over the same time frame.

Efforts such as these are important because research carried out with my colleague Nicholas Zill indicates that “Florida counties that enjoy strong and stable families also tend to enjoy more successful and safer schools.” Florida also stands to benefit economically and educationally by being one of the few states that demographers project will see continued increases in its population of families with children.

Florida should build on its newfound popularity with families by taking three steps to further strengthen the fortunes of marriage and family across the state. First, the state should launch a marriage initiative that would devote millions to public service announcements, relationship education, and community efforts to both underline the value of marriage to its young adults and equip its currently married couples to succeed. 

Second, Florida public schools should teach the “success sequence,” the idea that young people who graduate from high school, work full-time, and marry before having children are more likely to avoid poverty and be financially successful later in life — a policy item supported by 72% of Floridians. 

Finally, given the negative effects of social media on family life and relationships, the state should require age verification to prevent children 16 and under from accessing social media without explicit permission from their parents. This policy looks constitutionally stronger every day, with the Supreme Court recently declining to block a Texas age verification law from going into effect.

Taking steps such as these could help Florida consolidate its position as one of the nation’s most family-friendly states. And given the importance of marriage and family for that classic American pursuit, “the pursuit of happiness,” Florida could lead other states toward reopening the American heart to marriage and family.

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Brad Wilcox is a professor of sociology and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, as well as a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization.

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