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Marriage on the Decline: Bad Economy Turns More and More People Off of Matrimony

Marriage has become yet another dividing line between the haves, who still adhere to the conventional sequence of love-marriage-baby, and the have-nots.

When she was a single mom raising her son in Orange County, Calif., Katherine Romero always found ways to get dinner on the table despite a tight budget: ramen noodles (eight packages for $1), store brands only and low-cost meats such as a single chicken breast divided between the two of them. “We ate a lot of pasta and soup,” Romero remembers.

Now grown, Romero’s 23-year-old son tends to avoid canned soups but otherwise seems well-served by his upbringing. He recently earned two bachelor’s degrees, is pursuing a career in federal law enforcement and plans to marry his longtime girlfriend.

“It’s kind of a storybook ending,” says Romero, who herself has remained single since she became a mother at 22. Back then, she remembers feeling alone -- that no one else was in her situation. But over the years she has connected with other never-married mothers. One friend had a child with her boyfriend before the two broke up; another used in vitro fertilization to have a baby she planned to raise alone.

While the circumstances of the three women differ, what they all have in common is that their situations are increasingly common. Four out of 10 births in the U.S. occur outside marriage, and while moralists have viewed this pattern as an indicator of slipping social standards, the trend is better understood as a barometer of economic disparity.

Marriage in retreat

Single motherhood and a decline in marriage were trends long identified with African-Americans. Sen. Pat Moynihan warned, infamously, about increasing numbers of black children born outside wedlock in 1965, and the subject returned to center stage some 30 years later in the lead-up to welfare reform, with public discourse focused on demonizing black families and fathers in particular.

But since Moynihan’s era the same trends have taken hold across American society, with the percentage of births to unmarried women currently at 40 percent, up from 5.3 percent in 1960. Hispanics and Asians, along with blacks and whites, have also seen an increase in births outside marriage from 2002-2006.

Meanwhile, the decline in marriage, for decades a pattern in black America, has come to include more people across all groups. For example, some 84 percent of U.S.-born people between 30 and 44 were married in 1970; by 2007, that figure had fallen to 60 percent.

Some obvious social forces have fueled the trend that sociologists call “the retreat from marriage,” starting with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But the economy’s role has been greatly under-appreciated despite some rather obvious connections. Most notably, dwindling job prospects in unskilled labor have undercut working-class men’s ability to support a family, making them less marriageable in the eyes of some potential partners.

So it’s not surprising that the retreat from marriage is more concentrated among economically vulnerable whites, who now reflect some of the same family patterns detected earlier among African-Americans.

“Lower-income white family formation is starting to look like black family formation of 20 years ago,” said Paula England, Stanford University professor and member of the Council on Contemporary Families.

Authors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, authors of Red Families v. Blue Families, also note a shift.

“Non-marital childbearing, which was once thought of as a marker of race, has become more thoroughly identified with class,” they wrote in their book. “The economic forces that remade African-American communities, particularly in the rustbelt inner cities during the ‘60s and ‘70s, now also affect working-class whites,” according to Cahn and Carbone.

Among industrial nations, non-marital birth rates vary. Iceland claims the highest rate of births to unmarried women, at 66 percent, while Japan has the lowest at 2 percent. Germany, Spain, Canada, and Italy all had lower percentages of births to unmarried women than the U.S.

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