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Marriage, Class, and Social Justice

Do the 99 percent look different from the 1 percent when it comes to marriage? And does that matter?

The state of marriage in America? The last 100 years have seen some interesting demographic-trend lines with marriage: a significant dip around the time of the Great Depression and a very sharp and short-lived spike when the boys returned from World War II. But over the past 40 or so years, we have seen dramatic and sustained ahistorical changes. Let me offer a quick snapshot from various angles.

Overall, marriage has been declining steadily, with a drop of more than 50 percent since 1970. In 2010, only 20 percent of young American adults (aged 18–29) were married, while 59 percent were in 1960. The divorce rate started to rise dramatically in the mid-1960s and continued until it doubled by the mid-1980s, its apex. At that point, it stabilized at a very high level, thought it has even declined modestly at present. Overall, the percentage of divorced adults quadrupled since 1960. The number of children living with two married parents shrunk from 88 percent of all children in 1960 to 66 percent today. More than 41 percent of all children today are born to unmarried mothers, and this growth is seen most dramatically among later 20-, 30- and even 40-something women. Only 5 percent of American babies were born to unmarried moms in 1960. Nearly all the increase in unmarried child-bearing over the past ten years is from cohabiting mothers. Even the percentage of American households with children has declined from 49 percent in 1960 to 33 percent today while the overall number of American households has risen. But the largest growth trend is found among cohabitors, the number of shacking couples increasing 17-fold since 1960, with more than 60 percent of folks who marry today cohabiting in some form.

For those who think marriage is important, the leveling of the divorce rate — albeit at a very high level — is the only good news in the bunch. But there’s a relatively new angle on the marriage-in-America story that is a good-news/very-bad-news story. As Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute illustrates in his important new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, marriage rates are becoming dramatically and increasingly divided along class lines. In 1960, the poorly and moderately educated were only 10 percent less likely to be married than the college educated with both numbers quite high: 84 and 94 respectively. That parity largely held until 1978. Today, the two groups are separated by a 35 percent margin. According to the Brookings Institute, the strong rate of marriage among the highly educated, top-earning Americans has largely held constant and even seems to be increasing. That’s the good news. But marriage is sinking dramatically among low- and middle-class Americans, down from 84 percent to a minority of 48 percent today; a dramatic decline over the last 40 years. No indicators hint at a slowing. This stark trend line leads Murray to lament, “Marriage has become the fault line dividing America’s classes.”

But this concern about marriage and class is not new at all. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned his boss, Lyndon Johnson, and our nation with great passion that the hopes of the new landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act were not likely to be fully realized because the black family was dangerously fragile and continuing to weakening. On the first page of his infamous report — which was really the first shot fired in the culture war over the family — Moynihan warned, “so long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself” among black Americans. And this problem has indeed persisted, to point where the percentage of all married women in the U.S. is 50 percent (53 percent for white women), but tragically low at 29 percent for black women. This concerning disparity has led to such cultural-soul-searching books such as Stanford professor of family law Ralph Richard Banks’s Is Marriage for White People?, in which he contends that marriage recovery is essential for the socio-economic well-being of black Americans.

This highlights the practical and dramatic importance of declining marriage rates for both race and class in America. Marriage is not just a personal, sentimental institution, giving folks something to feel good about at each year’s anniversary. It is a vital social elevator. The scholars at the National Marriage Project working from the University of Virginia explain in a recent report (page78), “Marriage is a wealth-generating institution.” The evidence is dramatic.

All other things being equal, the never-married generally experience a reduction in wealth of 75 percent compared to their continuously married peers. And it is not just the fact that because a couple has two sources of income, it increases in wealth. The nature of the relationship between them matters as well. Cohabitors generally have a 58 percent lower level of wealth than the married. And those who divorce and never remarry have a 72 percent lower rate. The National Marriage Project explains that this is not just because those with better financial prospects are more likely to marry, but that the “institution of marriage itself provides a wealth-generation bonus.”

Professor Bill Galston who served as President Clinton’s domestic-policy adviser and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute explained back in the mid-1980s that an American needs to do three things to avoid living in poverty. The first is to graduate at least from high school. The second is to marry before having a child. The third is to have your child after age 20. Only 8 percent of people who do these three things are poor, while 79 percent who don’t live in poverty. As such, our steeply declining marriage rate and dramatically increasing unmarried-child-bearing rate among blue-collar Americans bode very poorly for their likelihood of rising to a better class and neighborhood. A dramatic 54 percent of our least educated and 44 percent of moderately educated citizens currently have had babies out of wedlock while nearly none (6 percent) of the highly educated have done so.

As another senior Brookings scholar, Isabel Sawhill, noted, “The proliferation of single-parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970s.” Our attention to the well-being of marriage among the various strata of society is not about mere traditionalism or empty moralism. Marriage is unarguably a central social-justice issue, a love-of-neighbor issue. No one can contend to help the poor and ignore this truth.

— Glenn T. Stanton is the director of family-formation studies at Focus on the Family and the author of The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage (Moody, 2011).


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