For 30 years, we’ve watched the hollowing out of the broad middle sector of America, as the gap between rich and poor widens and fewer working-class families are able to secure the living-wage jobs that once gave them a foothold in the middle class. Studies have revealed a growing class divergence in marriage as well. Yet, surprisingly, we’re finding that those who might benefit most from a two-income household are becoming the least likely to marry.
In the 1960s, marriage rates differed only modestly by education and income level. Today there is a 16 percentage point gap between college graduates (64 percent married) and people with a high school diploma or less (just 48 percent). And the family patterns of high school graduates increasingly resemble those of high school dropouts.
It’s not that Americans don’t value family commitments. Divorce rates have been falling since the late 1970s. And among individuals who are married or living with a partner, 94 percent say their relationship is as close or closer than that of their parents.
But increasingly the benefits of married life are distributed almost as unequally as the benefits of our economic life. People without a college degree divorce at more than three times the rate of college-educated Americans, and their out-of-wedlock birthrates have risen precipitously. In 2006-08, only 6 percent of births to female college graduates occurred outside marriage, but the majority of births to women without a high school diploma were out of wedlock, and 44 percent of births to mothers with only a high school diploma were to unwed women.
There is good reason to worry about these trends, but many commentators put the cart before the horse when it comes to explaining this convergence of the family lives of the least educated and moderately educated Americans.
According to Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project, for example, a major problem is that lower-income and economically insecure groups are increasingly adopting financial and emotional standards for marriage that are attainable only by the affluent. Whereas poor and working-class Americans used to “get and stay married, even if they did not have much money or a consistently good relationship,” writes Wilcox, “their children and grandchildren are much less likely to accept less-than-ideal relationships.”
Low-income individuals, according to a Pew research study, are three times more likely than college graduates to say each person has but one true love in life, but also twice as likely to believe that financial stability is a precondition for marriage, even if they already have a child. In consequence, pundits worry that the very people who would most benefit from marriage are the least likely to marry.
Wilcox believes our culture should reemphasize the benefits of an “institutional model” of marriage — one based on economic cooperation and child-raising rather than the elusive ideal of finding a soul mate. In other words, women should stop waiting for their prince and settle for a “good enough” marriage.
But figuring out what counts as “good enough” is not as simple as it used to be. Forty years ago, marrying almost any man would be economically better for a woman than going it alone. In that era, the average earnings for a female college graduate with a full-time job were less than the average for a male high school graduate. For most women, a man with a high school degree was a pretty good catch.
Not so today. While the wages of women across the educational spectrum have improved, the job and income prospects of young men without a college degree have fallen significantly. By 2007 — before the recession — employed 25- to 29-year-old men with a high school degree made an average of almost $4 less per hour (in constant dollars) than their counterparts in 1979. They also faced higher rates of unemployment and job insecurity than in the past.
Today a woman whose pool of marriage candidates does not include someone with a college degree has good reason to be cautious, even if she has a child and could use a second paycheck. She will certainly end up better off financially if she marries a man who is able to keep a job and is willing to share his resources. But she also has to weigh the very real possibility that he will become an economic liability if he loses his job or misuses the couple’s resources. If she forgoes investing in her own education or curtails her own work hours, as married women so frequently do, she could end up worse off economically, should the marriage break up, than if she had remained single and focused on improving her own earning power.
Furthermore, several studies suggest that while college-educated dual-earner families have high marital quality, lower-income dual-earner couples have been experiencing heightened marital distress.
Infidelity, drug abuse, depression, and domestic violence can happen anywhere, but they are especially common among couples facing economic distress. More than two-thirds of the low-income mothers studied by Duke University’s Linda Burton and her research team, for example, had been victims of serious domestic violence and sexual abuse.
When sociologists Paula England and Kathryn Edin asked low-income couples who had had a child together what it would take for them to marry, the answers they got were hardly wild and crazy daydreams. Almost universally the couples said they simply wanted to make sure one or both had a good enough job that they would no longer depend on family, friends, or the government to pay their bills each month. Most of the parents had failed to achieve such self-sufficiency four years after the birth. But of those who had, almost 80 percent did marry, compared with fewer than 20 percent of those who did not meet the bar.
Lack of money stopped many of these cohabitants from marrying, but that was not the reason they broke up. Asked why they split, couples described relationships marked by infidelity, constant arguing, verbal and physical abuse, lack of love and attention, substance abuse — and often all of the above. It was almost always the woman who had initiated the breakup.
Such studies suggest that the retreat from marriage that is spreading from impoverished to working-class Americans does not stem from unrealistically high standards but from serious problems in both their finances and their relationships. To address these problems, policymakers need to move beyond the usual liberal-conservative debates over whether to blame the economy or bad behavior.
Strengthening people’s economic prospects and developing more living-wage jobs is essential to reducing the economic instability that exacerbates relationship problems, and doing that would probably increase marriage rates among low-income and low-education individuals. But providing relationship-skills training and other counseling is also essential. Together, such programs can improve the well-being of adults and their children, whether they marry or not — an important goal in a world where, even for affluent individuals, marriage controls a smaller portion of our lives than ever before.
Stephanie Coontz teaches family history at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and her latest book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, comes out Tuesday. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.