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Is Marriage Becoming a Luxury of the Rich?

Conservatives are dead wrong about why marriage is in decline. Research shows the poor simply can't afford it anymore.

Photo Credit: Oxford University Press


Editor's note: Law professors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn have dived into a subject where economics meets the human heart. They investigate a distinct shift in American marriage patterns in which the pathway to partnership is diverging for those with economic resources and high status and those without. Conservatives tend to blame this shift on changing values and lack of moral character among working-class Americans. But Carbone and Cahn’s research reveals a different story: one in which growing inequality, economic insecurity and policy decisions combine to make marriage a risky bargain for people struggling to make ends meet. The following is an excerpt from Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family, reprinted with permission from Oxford University Press.

The American family is changing—and the changes guarantee that inequality will be greater in the next generation. For the first time, America’s children will almost certainly not be as well educated, healthy, or wealthy as their parents, and the result stems from the growing disconnect between the resources available to adults and those invested in children. The time to address the real explanation for the changing American family is now.

The changes themselves, of course, have been the subject of endless commentary, both positive and negative. The age of marriage is going up, the rate of marriage is falling, and almost half of all marriages fail. An increasing number of states allow women to marry women, and men to marry men. The number of children born outside of marriage is drawing equal with the number of children born within marriage. And the percentage of children growing up in single-parent households is the highest in the developed world. These changes, however, do not affect everyone equally. Describing how the “average” family has changed hides what is really going on: economic inequality is remaking the American family along class lines, and families are not going through the same changes together. To understand what is happening to the American family—and how family law locks in the growing class divisions—requires examining the links between family change along the continuum from the top to the bottom of the American economy.

In the process, many of the existing explanations for why the American family today is so radically different from the American family of 50 years ago will prove hollow. The right blames declining moral values, the pill, welfare as we knew it, the rise of “soulmate” marriage, and a host of other social ills without providing a convincing explanation of why these changes affect one group more than another. The left celebrates individual choice, sexual liberation, and women’s equality without acknowledging that not all sources of change are benign and that the consequences of some of the changes they support contribute to the growing inequality they oppose. Neither group provides a complete explanation of these changes, and without a better explanation of why the top and bottom of American families are moving in opposite directions, efforts at family reform will remain futile.

A complete explanation of family change requires taking seriously the role of class in scripting our lives as well as the effect of greater economic inequality in remaking the terms of marriage, divorce and childrearing. Such an explanation needs to address not just why marriage has disappeared from the poorest communities, but also why, in a reversal of historical trends, elite women have become the most likely to marry. It requires the ability to explain why divorce rates, which for decades moved in the same direction for the country as a whole, are now diverging, falling back to the levels that existed before no fault divorce for the most educated while continuing to rise for everyone else. A comprehensive analysis must also be able to make sense of the decisions of working-class women, who often describe themselves as religious or conservative, to have children on their own even when the fathers of their children are willing to propose.