There is a growing marriage divide in the United States. Marriage rates among lower-income and working class Americans have declined dramatically, and unwed childbearing has become the norm. However, among college-educated Americans, marriage is doing pretty well: most marry, their unwed childbearing rate has remained nearly as low as it was five decades ago, and they are the least likely to divorce.
This marriage divide is driving a wedge through society: in the upper-income third of the population, children are raised by their married parents, who have college educations. In the rest of the population, children are often born to single mothers with a high school education or less.
Unwed childbearing has long been common among those with the lowest income levels. Only recently has it become the norm among working-class, high-school-educated Americans as well. Not only does this trend leave a large proportion of America’s children at much higher risk of poverty, it also puts children at greater risk for outcomes that make them less likely to thrive. Children raised without their married mother and father are more likely to drop out of high school, go to jail, abuse alcohol and drugs, and become single parents themselves.
In Labor’s Love Lost, Johns Hopkins University professor Andrew J. Cherlin argues that this marriage divide has occurred because of rising income inequality, driven by decreasing wages among the working class since the 1970s. Cherlin overestimates the economy’s role in this marriage divide, however, underestimating the role of cultural changes. To combat the social ills driven by the decline in marriage, it is not enough to remove economic barriers to marriage. We must also rebuild our marriage culture.
Is It Really the Economy?
There is an ongoing argument about what has driven the decline in marriage and the rise in unwed births in working-class America. The left often cites economic decline, as Cherlin does, whereas the right emphasizes cultural changes that came with the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Cherlin’s narrative goes like this. During the 1950s through mid-1970s, manufacturing jobs were plentiful. These jobs required minimal education while providing wages substantial enough for a single earner to support a family. When the manufacturing industry began to drop off in the 1970s, however, so too did good wages for working-class men. This decline of manufacturing jobs—along with changing cultural trends that made it more acceptable for couples to live together and to bear children outside of marriage—created a rapid decline in marriage and a subsequent jump in unwed births. Although he addresses cultural factors such as the sexual revolution and the birth control pill, Cherlin ultimately concludes that if job prospects were better for this group, unwed birth would be much less common.
Cherlin’s narrative is questionable for several reasons. For one thing, Americans are better off today than ever before. Wages for all Americans have increased since the 1970s. While the lowest- and highest-income groups in the US have seen the greatest wage growth, the average wage for working class Americans is still higher today than it was in the 1970s.
And it’s not just wages. On top of rising compensation, taxes have fallen substantially for most workers since the 1970s. Middle-class workers actually have 30 to 50 percent higher real, after-tax incomes than in the 1970s. Also, government benefits are higher today than they were four decades ago. In total, most working-class families have more resources available to them today than they did forty years ago.
Moreover, researchers have directly examined the thesis that reduced manufacturing employment reduces marriage rates. Sociologists at New York University recently studied how increased importation from China in the 2000s affected marriage in communities that produced competing products. The new competition had negative economic effects—but this did not affect marriage rates. This research is preliminary but casts serious doubt on the primacy of economic factors in the decline in marriage rates. If centuries of subsistence-level poverty did not destroy the two-parent family, it is hard to see why a late twentieth-century slowdown in the rate of compensation growth would.
Declining Marriage Rates Reduce Male Incomes
On the other hand, Cherlin is correct that working-class men are indeed less likely to be employed today than in the past. Part of the reason appears to be directly connected to the decline in marriage rates—but as an effect, not a cause. In other words, because marriage rates are down, men are less likely to engage in the labor force.
In a 2014 report published by the American Enterprise Institute, researchers Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Robert Lerman of American University report that over half (51 percent) of the decrease in male employment between 1980 and 2008 (and 37 percent of the decline between 1980 and 2013) is connected to the decline in marriage. The authors note:
When young men and women replace formal commitment with informal relationships or none at all, work becomes less urgent, especially for men, who have historically taken all kinds of jobs to support their families. With no wife or children to support, men become less focused on the job market.
Wilcox and Lerman’s research shows that the greatest decline in male employment since 1979 has been among unmarried men. This trend holds true across all levels of education. The authors also point out that median family income would be 44 percent higher today if the United States had the same rate of married-parent families as in 1979.
Studies show that marriage is connected with a wage “premium” for men, and it’s not just because men with higher wages or greater earning potential are more likely to wed. Wilcox and Lerman find that married men work more hours and hence earn more on average. Married men ages 28-30 with a high school diploma or less earn an average of $17,164 more annually compared to their single counterparts. Married men between 44 and 46 years of age earn an average of $28,253 more than their single peers.
Marriage is connected with higher earnings for another reason: men and women who were raised by their married parents earn more, on average. Men who are 28-30 years of age with a high school education or less earn an average of about $4,504 more annually if they were raised in a married-parent family.
As unwed childbearing has increased, more children are raised without fathers. While both boys and girls are at higher risk for negative outcomes when raised outside an intact family, research indicates that father absence puts boys at greater risk than girls for lower educational achievement—and thus, lower earning potential.
A Changing Culture and the Breakdown of Marriage
To his credit, Cherlin does not ignore the cultural factors driving down marriage rates. In particular, he points out that the introduction of the birth control pill “contributed to a larger cultural phenomenon that began in the 1960s—the separation of sex, marriage, and childbearing.” Between 1965 and 1972, the percentage of women under age 30 who agreed “that premarital sex is ‘always wrong’” dropped markedly, declining from 50 percent to 17 percent over just seven years.
The spread of birth control and the legalization of abortion worked to disconnect sex from childbearing. It ended up disconnecting childbearing from marriage, weakening men’s responsibility as fathers. As Brookings Institution scholars George Akerlof and Janet L. Yellen put it, “By making the birth of the child the physical choice of the mother, the sexual revolution has made marriage and child support a social choice of the father.”
Not surprisingly, the rate of unwed childbearing, which had been low throughout American history, began its steady and rapid climb in the 1960s. Today, that unwed birthrate is over 40 percent among the general population. For those with lower levels of educational attainment, the rate is even higher: roughly 65 percent among those with less than a high school diploma and over 50 percent among those with only a high school diploma.
Furthermore, in the mid-1960s, the federal government began its major foray into social welfare policy with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” This government means-tested welfare system, which has grown dramatically over five decades, diminished the need for a father as a provider, making unwed childbearing more feasible.
Helping More Families Succeed
There is no question that we must work to open the door of opportunity for more Americans. Finding ways to improve the job market is an important goal. Furthermore, college costs are expensive and students often graduate with heavy loans. Advances in online education and other innovative educational formats are springing up, giving more students access to affordable education. Finding ways to expand these educational innovations would probably give more people the opportunity to improve their career prospects.
However, policies and reforms directly targeting the job market and the educational system can only go so far. Strong families are crucial to opportunity and prosperity. A culture of marriage must be restored. There has been a cultural shift away from childbearing within marriage, and without direct efforts to address this it is unlikely that marriages and families will become more stable.
Cherlin notes that efforts to provide individuals with marriage and relationship education have been only mildly successful at best. Yet, this doesn’t mean we should give up. More effort is needed, not less. Strengthening marriage is a work that will require participation at every level of society: neighborhoods, churches, the educational system, state and local governments, and so forth. One step forward would be a public advertising campaign to spread the message about the benefits of marriage and the importance of waiting until after marriage to have children.
The US welfare system should be reformed to promote work and to reduce marriage penalties. Marriage connects parents, particularly fathers, and their resources to their children. Society loses much when marriage declines, including economic benefits. In order for families to have the greatest opportunity to thrive, the norm needs once again to be that a man and a woman are committed to each other and the children they create through marriage.