Americans are acutely aware of Tiger and Elin's divorce; Brad and Jennifer's divorce; and, yes, Al and Tipper's divorce. These high-profile divorces contribute to the popular impression that the richer you are, the more likely you are to divorce.
While that may be true in celebrity culture, it is not the case for affluent and educated Americans in the real world. Indeed, in high-rent urban neighborhoods and the prosperous suburbs of the nation’s major cities, divorce is down, marital satisfaction remains high, and nonmarital childbearing is still an exotic activity. It is not upscale America but Middle America that is experiencing marital troubles. From small towns in the heartland to working class suburbs outside of the nation’s major cities, divorce, marital dissatisfaction, and nonmarital childbearing are on the rise. In a word, marriage is in much better shape among Whole Foods regulars than it is among Walmart shoppers.
It wasn’t always this way. Up until the 1970s, marriage had a strong hold over both Middle and upscale America. But over the last four decades, dramatic changes in the economic, cultural, and civic fabric of the United States have eroded the strength of Middle American ties to marriage; by contrast, the ties that upscale Americans enjoy to marriage have remained resilient in the face of these changes.
Hence, the nation is witnessing a growing “marriage gap” between these two Americas. This marriage gap is placing the American dream beyond the reach of many in Middle America, imperiling the social and emotional welfare of millions of children from Middle America, and opening up a social and cultural divide that does not augur well for the American experiment in democracy. This is the fundamental message of my new report, When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America.
More precisely, moderately educated Americans, who make up 58 percent of the adult population aged 25-60, and are defined here as Americans who hold a high school degree but not a 4-year college degree, have seen their rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing surge in recent years, to the point where their family lives look more and more like those of the least-educated Americans, who are defined here as high school dropouts (and make up 12 percent of the adult population). By contrast, marriage trends among highly educated Americans—defined here as Americans who have a four-year college degree (30 percent of the adult population)—have stabilized since the 1970s.
Take nonmarital childbearing. Among white Middle American women, nonmarital childbearing rose from 5% in 1982 to 34% in 2006-2008. But among white highly educated women, nonmarital childbearing did not rise at all. Only 2% of unmarried white women with college degrees had a baby in 1982 and only 2% did likewise in 2006-2008. So much for all those New York Times and Atlantic stories on well-educated women having children on their own.
Writing in Slate, Hanna Rosin accepts my basic diagnosis of the marital ills afflicting Middle America. But she doesn’t like the fact that I think the nation needs to enact public policies and advance cultural changes that will strengthen marriage in Middle America:
The part I am uncomfortable with is the patrician solution. If it was wrong to impose the values of the sexual revolution on the pious underclass is it not wrong now to impose our love of marriage? The National Marriage Project [makes] the assumption that the retreat from marriage is not the result of but the cause of our troubles.
But I’m not so sure. I read report after report about the decline of marriage and it feels more like a symptom: of female independence, economic disaster, the declining status of men. Encouraging marriage among a group of people who have given up on it is fairly difficult, as the Clinton administration found out during the welfare reform era. By contrast other social policies – better child care options for single mothers, support for out of work dads who need to pay child support – are relatively easy.
I’m happy to see that Rosin is aware of the limits of public policy, though I’m mystified by her contention that public policies like jobs programs targeting nonresidential fathers have a better record than welfare reform-inspired efforts to promote marriage. Such programs, not to mention Head Start, have decidedly mixed records.
More importantly, however, Rosin misses two fundamental points from the research. First, virtually everybody in America wants to be happily married. So it’s not “patrician” to think about helping Middle Americans realize their marital dreams.
Second, the retreat from marriage is both cause and consequence of many of our nation’s biggest problems. Yes, “economic disaster” and the “the declining status of men” hurt marriage. But when marriage breaks down, children and families are more likely to fall into poverty, men are less likely to get and keep a job, and kids raised in unmarried homes are much less likely to have a shot at the American dream. Indeed, Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution has found that much of the growth in child poverty since the 1970s can be attributed to the nation’s retreat from marriage.
So, that is why I think that highly educated Americans like Rosin and me need to think about public policies, cultural reforms, and civic initiatives that will extend marriage to Americans of every stripe. After all, can’t we agree that marriage shouldn’t just be the privileged preserve of college graduates?