Marriage Markets

wealthymattersThe fundamental divide in the United States today runs along the lines of class and marriage. College-educated Americans and their children reap the benefits of comparatively stable, happy marriages, while less-educated Americans—especially the poor and the working-class—are more likely to struggle with family lives marked by discord and marital instability. This two-tiered story ie articulated powerfully by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn in “Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family.”

Ms. Carbone and Ms. Cahn focus on macroeconomic changes to trace the retreat from marriage among the poor and working class. By their account, the new economy makes marriage a good deal for well-educated Americans, who can now pool two high incomes to the benefit of themselves and their children. By contrast, less-educated women are more likely to encounter “laid off or slacker” men who have been left in the lurch by the new economy. In 2010, only about 5% of college-educated men age 25-34 were unemployed, compared with almost 20% of men aged 25-34 with a high-school degree or less.

Ms. Carbone and Ms. Cahn point to an unbalanced “sex ratio” at the lower end of the economy—comparatively fewer marriageable men available to a comparatively larger pool of marriageable women. Such ratios make men “more likely to become unreliable cads and the women more likely to give up on the men and invest in themselves.” To the extent, then, that distinct cultural problems plague poor and working-class communities—increased infidelity, distrust and idleness—they flow from the fact that men have lost ground economically, making them less marriageable to the women of their class and circumstances, which explains why more than 50% of births to women without college degrees are out of wedlock.

College-educated women, by contrast, live in a social world where the ratio of marriageable men to women is close to even, where the men in their lives typically enjoy a stable and comparatively high income, and where men embrace a comparatively egalitarian approach to child care and housework. All these qualities make marriage a more attractive undertaking for the third of Americans who hold college degrees and explain why less than 10% of births to college-educated women are out of wedlock.

Such class-based family inequality is worrisome, in part, because it helps to reproduce social and economic inequality across generations. College-educated families, typically headed by parents who have managed to remain married to one another, “pay off handsomely for the lives of the next generation” in the form of more money, more parental investment in child rearing and more stability for children, all of which increase the odds of a child garnering a college degree and finding a good job later in life. By contrast, children from less-educated homes are often caught in a vicious cycle of family instability, eroding family incomes and laissez-faire parenting that leaves them ill-equipped to acquire the human capital they need to thrive in today’s competitive global economy.

What, then, is to be done? Ms. Carbone and Ms. Cahn offer a number of good suggestions, such as job-relocation grants for laid-off workers (to help them move away from high-unemployment regions to those with jobs) and portable health plans that allow workers to seek out the best job opportunities instead of clinging to bad, low-paying jobs for the sake of their benefits.

But the authors also think that the way forward requires strategies designed to “enhanc[e] women’s power”—such as “improved access to contraception.” This strategy, they  contend, would have helped a young woman like Bristol Palin, who discovered herself unmarried and pregnant during her mother’s campaign for the vice presidency in 2008. Perhaps. But a stronger case could be made that the bigger challenge facing working-class and poor families is not a lack of female empowerment but rather that contemporary masculinity has been decoupled from work, fatherhood and marriage—and for reasons that are not entirely economic. The bad-boy behavior of Levi Johnston, Bristol’s former fiancé, captures the problem perfectly. About this challenge, alas, Ms. Carbone and Ms. Cahn have too little to say.

About Keerthika Singaravel

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