When marriage disappears: rising inequality as the threat to the family

Summary:  This post looks at the disintegration of the family, another example of America’s regression as we quietly surrendering generations of gains. The America we loved — relatively classless, with a big middle class, low inequality and high social mobility — dies a little every day. The evidence lies before us, obvious in the news and described by countless studies. But to see it would create pressure to take political action. Work, risk, expense! It’s not too late to reverse these trends, but time is not on our side.

When Marriage Disappears

When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America
The National Marriage Project, U of VA


In middle America, marriage is in trouble. Among the affluent, marriage is stable and may even be getting stronger. Among the poor, marriage continues to be fragile and weak. But the most consequential marriage trend of our time concerns the broad center of our society, where marriage, that iconic middle-class institution, is foundering.

For the last few decades, the retreat from marriage has been regarded largely as a problem afflicting the poor. But today, it is spreading into the solid middle of the middle class. …

Race, Class, and Marriage

Forty-five years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan drew the nation’s attention to the growing racial divide in American family life with the release of his report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Moynihan later noted that his report had just captured the first tremors of “the earthquake that shuddered through the American family” over the course of the last half century.

Moynihan was right. This can be seen in Figure S1, which tracks trends in the percentage of working-age adults (25–60) who are in intact marriages, by race and educational attainment. While it is true that the nation’s retreat from marriage started first among African Americans, it is also evident that the retreat from marriage has now clearly moved into the precincts of black and white Middle America.

Specifically, in both the 1970s and the 2000s, blacks in all educational groupings were less likely to be in intact marriage than were their white peers. For both groups, marriage trends were not clearly and consistently stratified by education in the 1970s. However, by the 2000s, they are clearly stratified, such that the most-educated whites and blacks are also the most likely to be in intact marriages, and the least-educated whites and blacks are also the least likely to be in intact marriages.

This report is too rich in insights to summarize. The message and graphs are clear; it’s easy to read. I strongly recommend reading it. Here’s one graph I found especially compelling.

Percentage of Births to Never-married Women 15–44 Years Old,
by Education and Year

Birth to never married mothers by their level of education

Soon old films about social class will become new again

Films about the barriers of social class have been played as comedy or historical fantasy for several generations. As inequality rises to or beyond peak levels of the Gilded Age, these might again speak to us — and become popular.

To see where we’re going watch some of the classics, such as “Stella Dallas” (1927) or “Kitty Foyle” (1940). To see how the presentation in films of social class has changed, look at this list of films.

More insights about these processes that are re-shaping America

A typically incisive summary by Paul Krugman: “Money and Morals“…

“Still, something is clearly happening to the traditional working-class family. The question is what. And it is, frankly, amazing how quickly and blithely conservatives dismiss the seemingly obvious answer: A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.”

Blame Marriage Rates on the Family Values of the 1%” by June Carbone (Prof, U MN Law School), Roosevelt Institute, 2012 — “While low marriage rates among the working class are being blamed on their flawed morality, the real problem is their lack of jobs and education.”

The barriers between classes grow higher, as shown by this IPPR survey of British women: “Modern women marrying men of the same or lower social class” (2012). Marrying up (hypergamy) becomes more difficult for women as the ties of class become more powerful than emotional attraction or physical beauty.

Marriage Markets
Available at Amazon.

Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family by June Carbone (Prof of Law, U MN) and Naomi Cahn (Prof of Law, GW U), 2014.

“The authors examine how macroeconomic forces are transforming our most intimate and important spheres, and how working class and lower income families have paid the highest price. Just like health, education, and seemingly every other advantage in life, a stable two-parent home has become a luxury that only the well-off can afford. The best educated and most prosperous have the most stable families, while working class families have seen the greatest increase in relationship instability.

“… A rigorous and enlightening account of why American families have changed so much in recent decades, Marriage Markets cuts through the ideological and moralistic rhetoric that drives our current debate. It offers critically needed solutions for a problem that will haunt America for generations to come.”

Betrayal of the American Dream
Available at Amazon.

The Betrayal of the American Dream by Donald L. Barlett & James B. Steele (2012). For more about the book see this analysis, with links to several reviews, and the publisher’s summary…

“The story of how the American middle class has been systematically impoverished and its prospects thwarted in favor of a new ruling elite is at the heart of this extraordinarily timely and revealing book, whose devastating findings from two of the finest investigative reporters in the country will leave you astonished and angry.”

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. To learn what we can do see the posts about Reforming America. Also see these posts about the middle class, about social class in America, and especially …

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