The marriage gap that’s destroying Middle America

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

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

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
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

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.

: 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

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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