Marriage and money in the Great Recession

How are marriages -- American marriages, at least -- doing during the Great Recession? That is the question the latest State of Our Unions report from the National Marriage Project sets out to answer, and the findings are not all bad news.

Good News: Divorce fell during the first full year of the recession -- the first annual dip since 2005, and evidence that the challenges of job losses, foreclosures and depleted retirement accounts may be driving some couples to stick together, says a press release from NMP.

Sociology professor Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, who currently heads the project, suggests that “tough times foster real family solidarity” as families meet more of their needs within the home, and that “many couples are rediscovering the longstanding sociological truth that marriage is one of society’s best insurance plans”.

Credit card debt is down and with it one source of marital friction. New research by Jeffrey Dew, a professor of family studies at Utah State University, shows that couples who report disagreeing over finances once a week are over 30 per cent more likely to divorce than couples who disagreed over money a few times a month. He also found that couples who had no assets were 70 per cent more likely to divorce than those with $10,000 in assets.

(It is interesting that this year’s report from NMP is a product of the “Nest and Nest-egg Initiative” at the Institute for American Values. Nest and Nest-egg is an ongoing study “into the prudential values and institutions that are essential to sustaining a secure and thriving American middle class” and is funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.)

Bad News -- with perhaps a silver lining:

Men, particularly working-class and poor men, have absorbed 75 percent of job losses since 2007. This "mancession," particularly among those with only a high-school education, might foster gender-role reversals in contemporary marriages as unemployed or underemployed men take up more child care and housework. That's good news for gender equality and marital comity, argues Christine Whelan, a professor of sociology at the University of Iowa.

But new research by Wilcox suggests the "mancession" will undercut marriage in working-class communities, furthering a "divorce divide" between college-educated couples and those with less education that has been growing since the 1980s. His analysis of the 2000 Survey of Marriage and Family Life finds that, among couples with children at home, husbands who work less hours than their wives are 61 percent less likely to report that they are "very happy" in their marriages compared to men who work as many or more hours than their wives.

Generally speaking, there is not a lot to rejoice over. The dip in divorces may be simply a delay, with couples unable to afford to separate just now. Long-term trends are generally bad: the marriage rate continues to decline; the general divorce rate is high (couples marrying recently have a lifetime probability of divorce/separation between 40 and 50 per cent); cohabiting continues to rise (especially among those with less education and income) and with it, according to some research, a higher risk of family breakdown after marriage and its effects on children; fertility rates, while at “replacement” level, are low and children are less central to both marriage and society; the percentage of children who grow up in fragile, typically fatherless, families has increased enormously -- with negative outcomes at two to three times the rate of children in two-parent married families; (26 per cent of all children are now living with one parent only -- nearly always the mother, and, counting children in step-families, 34 per cent are living apart from their biological father); nearly 40 per cent of all children and more than two-thirds of Black children are born out-of-wedlock, putting them at higher risk of child abuse and domestic violence.

And how about the younger generation? Well, 70 to 80 per cent of them say that having “a good marriage and family life” are “extremely important” to them -- boys less than girls. And yet more than half of them accept out-of-wedlock childbearing as a “worthwhile lifestyle”, at least for others. Professor Wilcox says “they do not yet seem to grasp the enormous economic, social and personal costs of single parenthood.”

Finally, behind the trends are two highly significant shifts in the meaning of marriage within societies like that of the US. There is the change from marriage as an institution primarily for the procreation and rearing of children, to a less-child-centred model. And there is the shift from marriage as an economic union in which it was efficient for women to focus on the home and men to work outside it, to an equality model in which it is often just as economically efficient for women to work outside as well.

Together these shifts have produced the “soul mate” model of marriage -- the subject of an earlier State of Our Unions report (2001) -- with its emphasis on companionship and communication, income equality and, increasingly, the equal sharing of domestic responsibilities -- all kicked off with a hugely expensive wedding. As Alex Roberts, a scholar with the IAV, observes, this model appeals to educated and higher earners, but tends to exclude blue-collar workers and the poor -- many of whom now cohabit or opt for single parenthood.

Something very faulty with the model here.

Read the full report: The State of Our Unions, Marriage in America 2009: Money & Marriage


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