NYTimes: Marriage Divide Driving American Inequality

07.15.2012, 10:01 PM

Jason DeParle has a great piece in The New York Times showing that the growing marriage divide between Americans with a college degree and those without a college degree is a major driver of economic and social inequality in America. Money quote:

[Scholars] have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

In other words, it’s not just recent changes in income, earnings, and assets that are driving inequality in American life, it’s also changes in marriage and family life. Today, in America, the educated and affluent largely get and stay married, to their benefit and the benefit of their children, whereas Americans without college degrees are more likely to sidestep marriage or fail at marriage, both to their detriment and to their children’s detriment.

We’ve covered this ground before in our report, When Marriage Disappears. But one interesting new angle is that Scott Winship at the Brookings Institution found that “just 15 percent of teenagers [from the top echelons of society] living with two parents fell to the bottom third, compared with 27 percent of teenagers without both parent.”

In their heart of hearts, educated and affluent elites of all ideological stripes are intuitively aware of the power of this statistical truth. This explains in part why marriage among the educated and affluent in America has become stronger since the divorce revolution of the 1970s and early 1980s. Elites definitely do not want to see their children falling behind. So, they have learned to steer clear of the easy divorce ethic of the 1970s and early 1980s (think Gingrich) and to embrace a more sober marriage-minded ethic for the twenty-first century (think Obamas).

The challenge facing the nation: How do we extend this marriage mindset to the rest of the country?

6 Responses to “NYTimes: Marriage Divide Driving American Inequality”

  1. Quoting Dana Goldstein (who I agree with):

    This ignores, I think, the concrete reality of life in many low-income neighborhoods, where many women are making a rational choice when they remain single.

    Here in New York, for example, only one of every four young black men has a job. The communities from which these men hail have also been decimated by the drug war; 17 percent of adult black males have been incarcerated, compared to 2.6 percent of white men. In addition, low-income women, regardless of race, are three times more likely to experience violence from an intimate partner.

    In other words, as sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas demonstrate in one of my favorite books, Promises I Can Keep, low-income women often prefer to remain unmarried because the men in their lives–men facing chronic unemployment in the legitimate economy, or who may be addicted or engaged in criminal behavior–simply do not make stable husbands or fathers.

    If we want to get to the root causes of the “family values” issues in poor neighborhoods, we need to think not only about culture, but take a broad approach to social and economic policy-making, one that reforms the drug war, creates jobs, and, yes–educates people of all ages about the benefits of delaying childbearing and forming strong marriages.

  2. La Lubu says:

    It’s not just jobs, but job stability that has fallen by the wayside. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people. Personal stability cannot be maintained in the face of long-term material instability. This is amplified in geographic communities where job stability and wages have been depressed for the past thirty years or more, because in such communities the avenues for stability are like a game of musical chairs that has been going on for awhile—lots of folks, few seats at the table. Despite one’s best efforts to pay attention and be fast, it is inevitable that the majority are going to be without a seat.

    Marriage is still associated in many people’s minds with: adulthood, stability (emotional as well as financial), responsibility, caretaking……and as long as a critical mass of people find it too difficult to maintain the material circumstances that maintain such circumstances for themselves, many if not most are going to be reticent to take the gamble of getting married. People don’t like to fail. For many struggling people, marriage adds instability rather than abates it.

    How so? Well, my marriage meant that I had to support my husband financially even when he chose not to work. We had a joint checking account, so at any given time I didn’t know how much money was going to be in it. He wasn’t very good at money management to begin with, but when I started the apprenticeship (and didn’t “wash out” as he was expecting/hoping), he used spending as a means of “getback” to demonstrate his anger. Which brings me to: emotional work. In both maintream US culture and my ethnic/socioeconomic culture, women are supposed to do the “emotional work” of the relationship—the peacekeeping, the communicating, the articulating, the compromising, the planning ahead, the detail-keeping, the everything-that-keeps-the-emotional-ship-upright (instead of keeling over). I found this incredibly difficult, because my outlook was (both from my upbringing and my personal nature)—no crisis, no problem! LOL! Prior to marriage, we verbalized the same vision of a future. It was only after marriage, when the feet were on the ground and theory became practice that the different visions took on substance. Even if he had never become an abuser or an alcoholic, our marriage would have been doomed by the fatal flaw of different visions/expectations (which is why so many marriages of very young people fail–the two persons involved want different marriages!).

    I don’t know quite what you mean by “marriage mindset”; I’d like to see that defined or at least fleshed out more. Like Barry, I agree with the “Promises I Can Keep” premise, and see that in practice amongst a lot of working-class women as well. I’d also welcome (in light of the earlier conversation on masculinity) views on that as well. It strikes me how different the views are between what many men feel is important to their sense of/presentation of masculinity, vs. what (cough*heterosexual*cough) women desire in terms of masculinity, and how that can be a source of conflict (or a *marriage* dealbreaker).

  3. La Lubu says:

    From the “When Marriage Disappears” report:

    Over the last four decades, many Americans have moved away from identifying with an “institutional” model of marriage, which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union. This model has been overwritten by the “soul mate” model, which sees marriage as primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses.

    Interesting that these models of marriage are presented as being diametrically opposed, rather than consonant with one another. I’ve seen various definitions of “soul mate” posited in posts or links on this blog, but the one definition that is probably universal amongst race, class, ethnicity or any other identifying group is “marrying my best friend”. (I also know from past readings on this blog that the phrase “shared consumption” refers to sharing and participating in common interests—I’m still baffled as to why this is supposed to be either a bad thing or an irrelevant thing; either way it’s certainly not a novel thing!).

    Clearly, “marrying your best friend” (emotional intimacy, plus sharing common interests) works out quite well for highly educated, affluent couples. Why does Wilcox feel that this is too much for working class people to expect, and that we should just suck it up and tolerate a bad relationship, even when there is no sign of it ever changing? And why especially is “making do” advocated for women, when the empirical evidence shows that women are not better off in a bad marriage?

  4. Fitz says:

    The NYT is again way late in reporting a phenomena long understood by advocates of marriage. The cause & effect relationship of our marriage culture and its effects in driving inequality has been known for decades.

    The NYT is mostly known for cheerleading in the culture wars. That it suddenly comes to a conclusion in a single article about the connection between marriage and income disparity is a momentary concession.

    The editors and writers at the NYT will not connect the dots as to how we got here as a culture or how we could succefully address these problems. Its larger emphasis on sexual freedom will always override its concern for the poor. If this were not the case papers like the NYT would have “woken up” to family breakdown back when Moynihihan published his report.

    Scrapes from the times table dont impress me much.

  5. Diane M says:

    About “soul mates.” What I’ve seen bouncing around online is an idea that a soul mate is more than your best friend. In its most romantic version, the soul mate ideal has one perfect person for you out there. (Think of Carrie Bradshaw worrying that there were only one or two great loves in your life and she’d missed hers.) They love you immensely and are willing to do anything for you, no matter how ridiculous. They don’t mind it and nothing is work because it’s true love. They understand you completely, they finish your sentences, and they like the same movies as you. You are never going to break up because you agree about everything. You either don’t even want to cheat or you are so loving that you have no jealousy and are willing to share them.

    But if the relationship does end, it shows that they weren’t your soul mate. It doesn’t show that you two were young and communicated badly or that you didn’t have enough money and support from your families.

    This seems to me to be an ideal held mostly be relatively young women.

    If it were just about being a best friend, it might actually work. Friends are expected to do things for each other and work out conflicts. They don’t have to like all the same things and agree all the time. There are many possible friends out there for you, you just have to build the relationship.

  6. Diane M says:

    Overall, I agree with both the blog and the comments. Marriage has become an important part of the cultural divide between rich and poor in our country. It contributes to the income gap – a single parent family now has to compete with one smaller income against two large incomes.

    At the same time, as the comments point out, it isn’t going to work to just tell people to get married. There have to be good jobs and good marriage partners out there.

    The first step is to start talking about the problem, and to admit that this is a problem. It’s not a lifestyle choice in the sense of being what most people want; the ideal vision of many of the women in Promises I Can Keep is to be married.