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The state of the union isn't strong because of the state of our unions

OpinionThe state of the union isn't strong because of the state of our unions

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Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, is justly famous for underlining the importance of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for our new nation in the Declaration of Independence. But as we close in on the forty-sixth president’s 2024 State of the Union address in less than a week, we must face this fact: Jefferson’s vision is in peril.  

President Joe Biden and Congress could take a big step toward realizing “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for our nation if they recognized this simple truth — nothing matters for the State of Our Union than the state of our unions. 

When it comes to “life,” we’re witnessing tragic increases in what have been called “deaths of despair,” with record numbers of Americans — hundreds of thousands, to be precise — either killing themselves or dying from drug and alcohol overdoses in recent years.  

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When it comes to “liberty,” we see that record share of Americans — 64%, to be precise — now reporting they believe the American Dream is dead. And when it comes to the “pursuit of happiness,” poll after poll is telling us that millions of Americans are failing at this most important Jeffersonian pursuit, with happiness hitting “record lows” in recent years, according to Gallup.  

MARRIAGE proposal

One of the big reasons for the decline in American happiness is the decline in marriage. (iStock)

The State of Our Union is not strong, Mr. President. And the usual suspects that get blamed for all this in our national conversation are not the most important culprits. America’s ills are not primarily about failing schools, economic inequality or race. 

They are fundamentally about the fragile character of American family life — a subject Biden is unlikely to spend much time on during his address, despite its vital importance to the health of our country.  

Too many Americans are living alone or in chaotic homes, in large part because marriage and family life are too fragile in today’s society. The marriage rate has fallen more than 60% since 1970, a record number of adults are unmarried (about half), and almost one-in-two children grow up today outside of an intact, married family. 

The importance of strong and stable families for our country is conveyed in two new studies. In explaining which regions are more vulnerable to deaths of despair, for instance, a new study by Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell reports that declines in marriage are “more important than the college attainment rate, age composition, or racial composition in predicting deaths of despair.”  

And another recent study by University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman finds the “recent decline in the married share of adults can explain (statistically) most of the recent decline in overall happiness.”  

In other words, one of the biggest reasons — if not the biggest reason — the State of Our Union is not strong is that too many Americans are failing to get and stay married, and both they and their kids are paying a heavy price. But policymakers — including the president — pay too little attention to marriage, and its importance to the underlying social fabric of our country.

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What, then, could Biden and the Congress do to shore up marriage and family life?  

They could stop penalizing marriage through tax and welfare policies. These policy traps generally hurt working-class families by attaching a financial cost to marriage — which helps explain why a large share of working-class kids are born outside of marriage, which hurts children the most.  

When it comes to “life,” we’re witnessing tragic increases in what have been called “deaths of despair,” with record numbers of Americans — hundreds of thousands, to be precise — either killing themselves or dying from drug and alcohol overdoses in recent years.  

Additionally, the president and Congress could embrace a child tax credit that gives families a 20% bonus for being married. This approach would give parents a financial boost while also incentivizing our most important institution.  

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Finally, the U.S. Department of Education should promote the “Success Sequence”—which teaches students that the key to financial success is education, work and marriage — in public school curricula across the country. Work done by my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute shows that teaching the “Success Sequence” in public schools has the support of large majorities of Americans and American parents.  

Taking these steps would go a long way to fulfilling the vision for America that Jefferson outlined in the Declaration of Independence, a vision that is now imperiled by the fragile character of family life across our nation.  

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