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The Iona Blog

The social dynamics of the new marriage gap

Author: Tom O'Gorman
Date: 25th January 2013

There is increasing concern in the US that marriage is becoming an exclusively upper middle class phenomenon. In Ireland it is certainly increasing a middle class phenomenon.

A recent paper by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia showed that 44 percent of children of ‘moderately educated’ women are now born outside of marriage, up sharply from 13 percent in the 1980s.

‘Moderately educated’ is defined as completing high school but not having a four-year college degree and nearly 60 percent of Americans aged 25 to 60 fall into this category.

In a recent article for the Washington Monthly, Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institute argues that this trend started among African-Americans in the 1960s, and has now reached the white working class.

Class, Sawhill says, “is the new race when it comes to family structure”.

She goes on to usefully point out some of the economic and social trends behind this shift:  

“The disappearance of well-paying factory jobs has....led to the near collapse of marriage in towns where less educated men used to be able to support a family and a middle-class lifestyle, earning $70,000 or more in a single year. As these jobs have been outsourced or up-skilled, such men either are earning less or are jobless altogether, making them less desirable marriage partners.”

The change in the economic position of women has also impacted on marriage rates, Sawhill says.  

She says that it is not just the decline in male earnings that matters, but what men can earn relative to women.  

“When women don’t gain much, if anything [economically], from getting married, they often choose to raise children on their own. Fifty years ago, women were far more economically dependent on marriage than they are now.  

“Today, women are not just working more, they are better suited by education and tradition to work in such rapidly growing sectors of the economy as health care, education, administrative jobs, and services. While some observers may see women taking these jobs as a matter of necessity—and that’s surely a factor—we shouldn’t forget the revolution in women’s roles that has made it possible for them to support a family on their own.”

Despite these changes, Sawhill says, “most Americans, whatever their race or social class, still aspire to marriage. It’s just that their aspirations are typically unrealistically high and their ability to achieve that ideal is out of step with their opportunities and lifestyle”.  

Marriage, she points “is no longer a precursor to adult success. Instead, when it still takes place, marriage is more a badge of success already achieved”.  

“In particular, large numbers of young adults are having unplanned pregnancies long before they can cope with the responsibilities of parenthood. Paradoxically, although they view marriage as something they cannot afford, they rarely worry about the cost of raising a child,” she says.

Sawhill's bottom line is that what she calls “this wholesale retreat from stable two-parent families” is bad news.  

“The consequences for children, especially, are not good. Their educational achievements, and later chances of becoming involved in crime or a teen pregnancy are, on average, all adversely affected by growing up in a single-parent family.”

But she also worries about the increasing disaparity between middle class and working class marriage rates.  

“If we were once two countries, one black and one white, we are now increasingly becoming two countries, one advantaged and one disadvantaged.  

“[W]hen we look for the reasons why less skilled blacks are failing to marry and join the middle class, it is largely for the same reasons that marriage and a middle-class lifestyle is eluding a growing number of whites as well. The jobs that unskilled men once did are gone, women are increasingly financially independent, and a broad cultural shift across America has created a new normal.”

This socio-economic difference between rates of marriage applies here too, and with a vengeance. It's long past time for our public representatives to acknowledge this and to begin to tackle the problem.

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