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.

In short, a full explanation cannot look at the family in isolation from economic forces. Any attempt to respond to family change must include reconstruction of the script for the college educated, prompting investment in careers and marriages that can withstand the stresses of career changes, children’s illness, and geographic mobility. It also must address the destruction of the pathways that helped the working class aspire to the same combination of financial and family security.

The story accordingly starts with the greater inequality that characterizes the American economy. Rising inequality has affected men more than women, increasing both the number of men at the top who are eager to pair with high status women and the number of men at the bottom who no longer play productive roles. These changes fundamentally alter the “gender bargain,” that is, the terms on which men and women find it worthwhile to forge lasting relationships, and they do so in ways that push the top and the bottom of the socioeconomic system in different directions.

At the top, increasing disparities among men and among women have made both pickier about potential mates and wary of early commitments that might limit future opportunities. Women used to “shop around” for successful men. Male executives used to marry their secretaries, who would take care of them at home the way they did in the office. Now both look for mates who reflect (and enhance) their own expectations about the ability to enjoy the good life. Two substantial incomes rather than one make the difference between the home overlooking the golf course and the modest tract house in the less tony school district, and even if money is not at issue, the stay-at-home spouse with the Ph.D. possesses much more social status than does a high school graduate playing the same domestic role.

College graduates still largely forge lasting relationships and they typically will do so with one another, but they hedge their bets by delaying marriage and childbearing until they have a better idea of where they (and the partners to whom they commit) are likely to end up—concentrating elite advantage in the process as overwhelming numbers of them raise their children in financially secure, two-parent families.

For those whose incomes place them in the bottom third of the population, increasing disparities between men and women have made both more likely to give up on each other. International and interstate comparisons demonstrate that higher rates of inequality tend to be associated with chronic unemployment, high rates of imprisonment, and substance abuse—factors that disproportionately affect men. Women in these communities view commitment to a man who runs up the credit card bill, cycles in and out of jobs, or deals drugs on the side as more of a threat than an asset to the ability to care for children.

Men view women who take their money when they have it but do not stand by them when they flounder with distrust. These patterns encourage women to invest in their own resources rather than in the men in their lives and men to move on to new relationships when their current ones hit rough patches.

Family stability is an inevitable casualty.

The hardest patterns to analyze are those of the middle—the group clustered around the fiftieth percentile of family income in the United States. This group, which used to be called the “white working-class,” is now more racially diverse than both its comparable cohort of fifty years ago and the college-educated upper third of today. This group was once associated with well-paying blue-collar manufacturing jobs, but manufacturing jobs are no longer numerous or distinct enough to define the group. Education is perhaps the best proxy. Members of this group are high school graduates but lack a B.A. Many start at a university but do not finish, or they earn a community college or vocational degree.

The women from these families in the middle have done well. Unlike those in the top group, where sons are more likely than daughters to graduate from college and where the gender gap in income has widened, the women in this middle group have outpaced the men. They earn higher grades, stay in school longer, and are more likely to return to complete an unfinished degree later in life. When they have the same level of education and work the same number of hours as the men, the income gender gap narrows. With these changing fortunes, this larger group of successful women in the center seeks to pair with a shrinking group of comparable men. Female high school graduates used to be able to marry men with a college education; today they are much less likely to get married at all. And sociologists find that women in this center group, particularly among whites, cohabit more than American women in any other group; they live with a partner, marry, divorce, and cohabit with someone else to a greater degree than in any other group. We are providing a portrait of the changes that remade the country in the years 1990–2007. But the jury is still out as to whether the family patterns of the center, which used to look more like the family patterns at the top, will eventually resemble those of the poor.

These economic changes, which have increased the dominance of high-income men at the top, marginalized a large number of men at the bottom, and reduced the number of men in the middle, have unsettled the foundations of family life. To be sure, the family does not change with the stock market ticker or the seasonal adjustments in the unemployment rate. Instead, shifts in the economy change the way men and women match up, and, over time, they alter young people’s expectations about each other and about their prospects in newly reconstituted marriage markets. These expectations go to the core of what many see as a shift in values. The ambitious college students, who are said to have mastered the “hookup,” know that attending to their studies pays off in terms of both marriage and career prospects and that too early a commitment to a partner or to childbearing may derail both. Yet, they still largely believe that when they are ready, a suitable partner—male, female, or the product of a sperm bank—will be there for them.

Women who do not graduate from college are more likely to see childbearing as the event that will most give meaning to their lives, and they are more likely to respond to experiences with unreliable and unfaithful partners by giving up on men and investing in themselves and their children. These differing expectations, treated as the subject of moral failings, women’s liberation, and cultural clashes, are a predictable consequence of the remaking of marriage markets. At the top, there are more successful men seeking to pair with a smaller pool of similarly successful women. In the middle and the bottom, there are more competent and stable women seeking to pair with a shrinking pool of reliable men. What we are watching as the shift in marriage markets rewrites family scripts and increases gender distrust is the re-creation of class—of harder edged boundaries that separate the winners and losers in the new American economy.

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