The following statistics on marriage, family and divorce refer to the United States and Sweden, but to some extent they reflect trends in Australia and the Western world generally and are therefore cause for concern, with their negative implications for the churches as well as for the wider society. The report is from the Zenit News Agency.
In July the National Marriage Project, based at Rutgers University, released its annual report on marriage. This year's edition is titled "The State of Our Unions: Marriage and Family: What Does the Scandinavian Experience Tell Us?"
Authored by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, the report presents a variety of statistical information on family and marriage in the United States. The report also contains an essay by Popenoe comparing family policies in the United States and Sweden.
From 1970 to 2004 the annual number of marriages per 1,000 adult women in the United States plunged by nearly 50 per cent. This is due to a combination of factors. First marriages are being put off until later: the median age of new spouses rose from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 26 and 27, respectively, in 2004. Other factors include the growth of cohabitation and a small decrease in the tendency of divorced people to remarry.
The divorce rate today is nearly twice that of 1960, but has declined slightly since hitting its peak in the early 1980s. For the average couple that married in recent years, the lifetime probability of divorce or separation remains between 40 and 50 per cent.
The number of unmarried, cohabiting couples has increased dramatically over the past four decades, and the increase is continuing. Most young American adults now spend some time living together outside of marriage, and cohabitation commonly precedes marriage.
The US birthrate continues to decline. The latest data, for 2003, shows an average of 2.044 children per woman. This figure is higher than in many other countries, though observers believe that the American rate will decline further in future decades.
The trend toward fatherless families levelled off in the late 1990s, but the most recent data show a slight increase. In 1960 only nine per cent of children lived in single- parent families. By 2004 this jumped to 28 per cent. The overwhelming majority of single-parent families are mother-only.
Meanwhile, surveys reveal that Americans increasingly view marriage and child rearing as separate pursuits. Among teenagers, both boys and girls have become more accepting of non-marital lifestyles, especially unwed childbearing.
In his essay Popenoe looks at the argument that contends the United States could reduce problems such as child poverty, teen pregnancy, and single parenthood if it was to adopt family and welfare policies similar to those of Sweden or Norway.
Sweden has one of the lowest marriage rates in the world. If current trends hold, only about 60 per cent of Swedish women will ever marry, compared with over 85 per cent of their US counterparts. Fifty years ago the figure was 91 per cent for Sweden and 95 per cent for the United States.
Instead of marriage, cohabitation is increasingly popular in Sweden. By contrast, the United States has a lower rate of cohabitation than all but the predominantly Catholic nations of southern Europe. About 28 per cent of all couples in Sweden are cohabiting, versus eight per cent of American couples.
A number of factors contribute to the high rate of cohabitation in Sweden. Religion is weak, and the moral and cultural taboos against partners living together have disappeared. In addition, government benefits are given to individuals regardless of their relationships or family arrangements. Spousal benefits in such matters as health care simply do not exist. And all income tax is individual.
For its part the United States stands out for having the world's highest divorce rate. The risk of a marriage ending in divorce in the United States is close to 50 per cent, compared with about 40 per cent in Sweden. This difference can be explained in part by the high levels of ethnic, racial and religious diversity in the United States, all of which are associated with divorce. By contrast Sweden has a highly homogeneous society. And, of course, people who cohabit but don't marry won't have to divorce.
Swedish cohabiting couples do, however, break up in large numbers. It is estimated that the risk of breakup for cohabiting couples in Sweden, even those with children, is several times higher than for married couples.
Moreover, the Swedish divorce rate has been growing in recent years, while the US rate has been declining. So, overall, given the increasing convergence of divorce rates, and the instability of cohabiting couples, the family breakup rate in the two nations is actually quite similar, Popenoe concludes.
One significant difference between the two countries regards the percentage of children living with their biological parents. The number of births outside marriage is higher in Sweden, 56 per cent, than in the United States, 35 per cent. Even so, more children in Sweden live with their parents. This happens because the extramarital births in Sweden are mostly to cohabitating couples, while in the United States they are to young, non-cohabitating mothers.
The high breakup level of relationships in Sweden, the report comments, "is testimony to the fragility of modern marriage in which most of the institutional bonds have been stripped away - economic dependence, legal definitions, religious sentiments, and family pressures - leaving marriage and other pair- bonds held together solely by the thin and unstable reed of affection."
The big losers in this trend, the report continues, are the children. In both Sweden and the United States studies show that children from broken families have two to three times the number of serious problems in life.
The National Marriage Project report also points out that while Sweden is considered liberal in matters of sexual morality, its laws in some areas are stricter than those in the United States. In Sweden, for instance, married couples with children aged 16 or under must wait six months before a divorce becomes final. In the United States, most states make no distinction in their divorce laws between couples with or without children.
Also, Sweden allows in vitro fertilisation only if a woman is married or cohabiting in a long-term relationship. The United States has no such restrictions. Anonymous sperm donation is prohibited in Sweden, and allowed in the United States. And an abortion in Sweden after the 18th week of pregnancy is allowed only after review and approval by the National Board of Health. By contrast, abortion is allowed for pregnancies through the third trimester in all but three US states.
Sweden also offers advantages in child rearing. There is more leisure time, and generous welfare benefits make it possible for parents to spend greater time with their children. Almost all mothers are able to stay at home with their infants for the first year, at 80 per cent or more of their salary. And it is easy to work flexible hours in order to meet family responsibilities. In Sweden child poverty is almost nonexistent, and all children are covered by health insurance.
But this comes at a price. Popenoe comments: "The average American would probably find life in Scandinavia rather uncomfortable due to high taxes, strict government regulation, limited consumer choice, smaller dwelling units, social conformity, and a soft work ethic."
The two societies, in fact, are polar opposites in many aspects, and Popenoe concludes that "it is a mistake to think that what works in Sweden could necessarily be transplanted to America." Yet, he suggests that the Swedish models should not be rejected out of hand.