The marriage gap that’s destroying Middle America

This is the issue that should be top of the political agenda - and not only in the United States.
Carolyn Moynihan | 19 August 2011
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It was a traumatic and costly lesson, but the rioting in English cities last weekend has forced “broken Britain” to face where its major social faultlines lie. Without a doubt, family breakdown is one of them, destabilising the welfare class over several decades by robbing children of their fathers and replacing them all too often with their mothers’ transient partners or with the Alpha males who run neighbourhood gangs (Scotland Yard says one in four of the rioters was a gang member).

Of course, as the appearance of the odd grammar school or university graduate in court showed, bad behaviour is not limited to the “underclass”. Neither, as it turns out, is family disintegration. While the attention of the world was riveted on the anarchy in England, two reports were published in the United States warning that family instability is making serious inroads into the working class and lower middle class of that country -- as it is in Britain and many others. Both reports are about the erosion of marriage; together they leave no-one, in America at least, with any excuse for ignorance on the subject.

In the first, The Marginalisation of Marriage in Middle America, the problem is outlined by two sociologists: W Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a conservative; and Andrew J Cherlin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a liberal. Their views diverge on the importance of marriage, but they agree about two basic things: “that children are more likely to thrive when they reside in stable, two-parent homes,” and “that in America today cohabitation is still largely a short-term arrangement, while marriage remains the setting in which adults seek to maintain long-term bonds.”

Many social commentators are worried about the widening wealth gap in today’s America. More worrying still is the marriage gap that has opened up between the working class -- basically, people with not much more than a high school diploma -- and the college educated middle class. Indeed, the latter gap is a significant contributor to the first.

Contrary to the impression you might get from reading the New York Times, college educated Americans are not generally engaged in pushing the sexual revolution to new extremes; they are busy creating what Wilcox and Cherlin call a “neotraditional style of family life”. They “may cohabit with their partners, but nearly all of them marry before having their first child. Furthermore, while most wives work outside the home, the divorce rate in this group has declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s.”

Brittle cohabiting unions

In contrast, working class young adults, who comprise half of the population aged 25 to 34, are defaulting on marriage:

“More and more of them are having children in brittle cohabiting unions. Among those who marry, the risk of divorce remains high. Indeed, the families formed recently in working-class communities have begun to look as much like the families of the poor as of the prosperous. The nation’s retreat from marriage, which started in low-income communities in the 1960s and 1970s, has now moved into Middle America.”

Compared to college graduates, moderately educated Americans are more than twice as likely to divorce in the first 10 years of marriage, and women are more than seven times as likely to bear a child outside of marriage. “Indeed the percentage of nonmarital births among the moderately educated (44 percent) was closer to the rate among mothers without high school degrees (54 percent) than to college-educated mothers (6 percent).”

We need to get the seriousness of this: back in 1960 the marriage gap barely existed; now there’s a chasm opening up between the third of Americans with higher education and everyone else -- including the large class of ordinary working people that used to be the backbone of family values.

Many will say it doesn’t matter. We are not looking at a boom in single mothers here, but of cohabiting couples having children, which means the kids still have a mother and father under one roof. Cherlin himself inclines to the view that a stable two-parent home is what matters, not marriage as such. The fact is, however, that cohabiting relationships are much less stable than marriage.

Much less.

US Demographers Sheela Kennedy and Larry Bumpass suggest that 65 per cent of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents part by the time they are 12, compared to 24 per cent of the children of married parents. A British report last December found something similar: unmarried couples accounted for 59 per cent of break-ups affecting children up to the age of five, divorces for 20 per cent, and single parents headed 21 per cent of broken families with young children. Even in Sweden, the fabled home of non-traditional happy families, children born to cohabiting couples are 70 per cent more likely to see parents separate by the age of 15, compared to married parents.

The marriage advantage is a fact

Now, we all come across married families here there is conflict between the parents, where there is poor parenting, where the children are not thriving. Not all married families are healthy. And it may be that the advantage enjoyed by married families on average is due in part to the kinds of people who marry (selection effects). That there is a marriage advantage, however, is beyond dispute. Wilcox and Cherlin note:

“The fact is that children born and raised in intact, married homes typically enjoy higher quality relationships with their parents, are more likely to steer clear of trouble with the law, to graduate from high school and college, to be gainfully employed as adults, and to enjoy stable marriages of their own in adulthood. Women and men who get and stay married are more likely to accrue substantial financial assets and to enjoy good physical and mental health. In fact, married men enjoy a wage premium compared to their single peers that may exceed 10 percent.”

These claims are borne out by data from 250 peer-reviewed journal articles on marriage and family life in the US and around the world which are the basis of the second report mentioned above: Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences. Released this week and updating two earlier reports of the same name, Why Marriage Matters is co-authored by 18 family scholars from leading institutions and chaired by Professor Wilcox.

Among its statistics: 66 per cent of 16-year-olds were living with both parents in the early 1980s, compared to just 55 per cent in the early 2000s. Assuming that no responsible or humane person would say that this trend, bringing insecurity and misery to millions of children, does not matter, we have to ask: Why is this happening? And what can be done to change it?

Causes of marriage decline - economic and cultural

Wilcox and Cherlin suggest four causes:

Economic changes: The transformation of the economy has hit working class men in particular by taking away secure and reasonably well-paid jobs. Young adults from this class typically do not want to marry until they have a stable, adequate income and so they live together and eventually have babies. And yet, this did not happen during the Great Depression, which suggests that cultural changes have played a bigger part.

Sexual norms: The most obvious of the cultural factors is more complex than you might expect. The effects and causes of the sexual revolution are all too familiar; what many of us may not realise is that sexual mores are actually firming among upscale Americans. Since the 1970s, opposition to premarital sex fell 6 percentage points among the high school educated but rose 6 points among the college educated.

As the authors remark, “in a striking turn of events, Middle America, which has long been seen as the putative source of traditional family values, is moving away from a marriage mentality at the very same time that Upscale America is moving towards such a mentality.” Clearly, the stigma of having a child out of wedlock is fading among the middling sort of people.

Religious participation: Similar shifts are at work here: since the 1970s the share of moderately-educated Americans attending church about once a week or more has fallen from 40 to 28 per cent -- 12 points, while among the college educated it fell only four points, from 38 to 34 per cent. Wilcox believes that “this decline is important because the norms, social networks, and sense of meaning fostered by American religious institutions typically foster higher-quality, stable relationships.”

Legal changes: Developments like no-fault divorce and the strengthened obligations of unmarried fathers to support their children reflect a shift “away from the primacy of the marriage bond toward the primacy of parent-child ties, whatever the legal status of the parent’s relationship, and of individual rights.”

A political challenge

All this suggests that economic, cultural, religious and legal initiatives are needed for the renewal of marriage and family life in Middle America. Wilcox and Cherlin -- not agreeing entirely on all points --outline six policy responses covering job training, tax breaks, social marketing, investment in preschool education, and reform of divorce law.

The jobs issue is already top of the US elections agenda, in tandem with the issue of government spending. From a distance, though, what the whole US political scene seems to lack is a social vision that would put the other concerns into perspective.

Marriage is that vision -- or so the family scholars seem to suggest. Marriage is the remedy for a huge welfare burden. Marriage tells you where public support is really needed and where it will return the greatest social dividend. Marriage, in a sense, is what the economy is for, because it is in married families that children have the best chance of growing to emotional, moral and intellectual maturity, the best chance of realising the American Dream of upward social mobility.

The alternative is continuing downward mobility for Middle America, middle Britain, middle Europe and middle Australia as the economic costs of compensating for the married family become unbearable. And with that downward trend the Global Nightmare of widening wealth gaps, growing alienation and more riots.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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