Marriage, which used to be the default way to form a family in the United States, regardless of income or education, has become yet another part of American life reserved for those who are most privileged.
Fewer Americans are marrying overall, and whether they do so is more tied to socioeconomic status than ever before. In recent years, marriage has sharply declined among people without college degrees, while staying steady among college graduates with higher incomes.
Currently, 26 percent of poor adults, 39 percent of working-class adults and 56 percent of middle- and upper-class adults are married, according to a research brief published today from two think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and Opportunity America.
In 1990, more than half of adults were married, with much less difference based on class and education: 51 percent of poor adults, 57 percent of working-class adults and 65 percent of middle- and upper-class adults were married.
A big reason for the decline: Unemployed men are less likely to be seen as marriage material.
“Women don’t want to take a risk on somebody who’s not going to be able to provide anything,” said Sharon Sassler, a sociologist at Cornell who published “Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships” with Amanda Jayne Miller last month.
As marriage has declined, though, childbearing has not, which means that more children are living in families without two parents and the resources they bring.
“The sharpest distinction in American family life is between people with a bachelor’s or not,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins and author of “Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America.”
Just over half of adolescents in poor and working-class homes live with both their biological parents, compared with 77 percent in middle- and upper-class homes, according to the research brief, by W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies. Thirty-six percent of children born to a working-class mother are born out of wedlock, versus 13 percent of those born to middle- and upper-class mothers.
The research brief defined “working class” as adults with an adjusted family income between the 20th and 50th percentiles, with high school diplomas but not bachelor’s degrees. Poor is defined as those below the 20th percentile or without high school diplomas, and the middle and upper class as those above the 50th percentile or with college degrees.
Americans across the income spectrum still highly value marriage, sociologists have found. But while it used to be a marker of adulthood, now it is something more wait to do until the other pieces of adulthood are in place — especially financial stability. For people with less education and lower earnings, that might never happen.
College graduates are more likely to plot their lives methodically — vetting people they date until they’re sure they want to move in with them, and using birth control to delay childbirth until their careers are underway.
Less educated people are more likely to move in with boyfriends or girlfriends in a matter of months, and to get pregnant at a younger age and before marriage. This can make financial and family stability harder to achieve later on.
“It starts with moving in together quickly, for economic exigency reasons as opposed to relationship reasons,” Sassler said. “Then struggling with making ends meet and trying to manage this with a partner just elevates the challenges.”
Evidence shows that the struggles of men without college degrees in recent years have led to a decline in marriage. It has been particularly acute in regions where well-paying jobs in male-dominated fields have disappeared because of automation and trade.
In a working paper published in July, three economists studied how the decline in manufacturing jobs from 1990 to 2014, across industries and regions, “contributed to the rapid, simultaneous decline of traditional household structures.”
Labor market changes made men less marriageable, they concluded. There were fewer available men, because unemployment was associated with a rise in incarceration or mortality from drugs and alcohol. The men who were left were less desirable, because they lacked income and were more likely to drink to excess or use drugs.
Researchers found a corresponding increase in births to unmarried mothers. The decline in marriage was not offset by more couples living together.
“A bad economy lowers the cost of having bad values — substance abuse, engaging in crime, not looking for a job right away,” said Gordon Hanson, an economist at the University of California, San Diego, who wrote the paper with David Autor of MIT and David Dorn of the University of Zurich.
Never-married adults cite financial instability as a major reason for being single, especially those who are low-income or under 30, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Most men feel it’s important for a husband to be a financial provider, especially men without college degrees, according to another new Pew survey.
Women, meanwhile, have learned from watching a generation of divorce that they need to be able to support themselves. And many working-class women aren’t interested in taking responsibility for a man without a job.
“They say, ‘If he’s not offering money or assets, why make it legal?’” said June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the author with Naomi Cahn of “Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family.”
While researchers say it’s stability, not a marriage license, that matters for children, American couples who live together but don’t marry are generally less likely to stay committed.
When thinking about how to make families more stable, researchers debate whether the decline in marriage is an economic issue or a cultural one. Those on the left usually say it’s economic — and could be reversed if there were more and better jobs for men without college degrees. Those on the right are more likely to say it’s because of a deterioration of cultural values.
In reality, economics and culture both play a role, and influence each other, social scientists say. When well-paying jobs became scarce for less educated men, they became less likely to marry. As a result, the culture changed: Marriage was no longer the norm, and out-of-wedlock childbirth was accepted. Even if jobs returned, an increase in marriage wouldn’t necessarily immediately follow.
Economists often downplay cultural factors, Hanson said. “We think about marriage in a laboratory setting, and ignore the role of churches and bowling leagues and community organizations,” he said. “When you have job decline in a big way, that fabric unravels. So even if you bring the jobs back, once the damage is done, it might take a while to repair.”
If economics and culture are linked, then policy ideas aimed at creating more stability for children would ideally address both.
Social scientists suggest more routes to good jobs, like through community colleges or apprenticeships. More affordable housing for young people would help, so they don’t move in together simply from economic necessity. Inexpensive and accessible contraception would help, too. Some have suggested expanding the child tax credit, and removing the marriage penalty for benefits like the earned-income tax credit.
Changing culture is harder: Government marriage promotion programs haven’t worked well, for example. Yet it’s clear from research that if relationships progressed more slowly, and childbirth came later, families would be more stable.
People with college degrees seem to operate with more of a long-term perspective, social scientists say. They are more likely to take on family responsibilities slowly, and they often benefit from parental resources to do so — like help paying for education, birth control or rent to live on their own. In turn, the young adults prioritize waiting to have children until they are more able to give their children similar opportunities.
“The cultural reinforcement, people relying on contraception and abortion, reinforces a norm, that you don’t have the kid with the wrong guy,” Carbone said.
Wilcox suggests a bigger emphasis in high schools and pop culture on what’s known as the success sequence: degree, job, marriage, baby. “The idea is that if people follow that sequence, their odds of landing in poverty are much lower,” he said.