March 04, 2007
The Privileged, Matrimonial Few
Interesting story from the Washington Post: Numbers drop for the married with children
Punctuating a fundamental change in American family life, married couples with children now occupy fewer than one in every four households -- a share that has been slashed in half since 1960 and is the lowest ever recorded by the census.
As marriage with children becomes an exception rather than the norm, social scientists say it is also becoming the self-selected province of the college-educated and the affluent. The working class and the poor, meanwhile, increasingly steer away from marriage, while living together and bearing children out of wedlock.
"The culture is shifting, and marriage has almost become a luxury item, one that only the well educated and well paid are interested in," said Isabel V. Sawhill, an expert on marriage and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
And for those who believe that is all a matter of modern ideas breaking down traditional ideas of marriage and child-raising, here's a quote from you, into which I'll add my own emphasis: "'We seem to be reverting to a much older pattern, when elites marry and a great many others live together and have kids,' said Peter Francese, demographic trends analyst for Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising firm." What's old is new again.
Some various thoughts on this:
* One of the very interesting and problematical things in the story is a reason many people give for not getting married, which is that they feel they can't afford it. This despite general evidence that shows being married stabilizes one's finances rather than causes hardships (anecdotally, this was certainly the case with me; when I met Krissy all my bills were on third notices because I just didn't get around to paying them on time. Krissy took over the finances and I stopped having to worry if my electricity was going out).
I think to some unknown extent worrying about the cost of being married is a convenient excuse not to get married for other reasons -- lots of people of marriageable age right now are the products of divorce, so any excuse not to screw up like their parents did is a good one -- but this doesn't mean that I think it's being used as an excuse by everyone. In particular I wonder whether how much of "I don't think we can afford to get married" translates into "I don't want to mix my financial life with someone else's." Lots of people of marriageable age are running around without health insurance, and so are their potential spouses; how many of them are thinking "do I want to be responsible for this person's medical bills?" Likewise, how many of them want to be on the hook for a dual-income-requiring mortgage if the spouse loses a job? And so on. Adding a child to this equation adds another level of uncertainty.
Which leads to an interesting thought experiment: Would universal health care lead to an increase in the willingness of young couples, particularly poor and working-class couples, to marry? That's one less major expense to be phobic about, after all. And, if there were evidence that showed a correlation between universal health care and higher rates of marriage (particularly among working class and poor couples), would social conservatives, who appear to be generally against universal health care, be persuaded to be for it? Bear in mind I call this a thought experiment for a reason: I don't know the marriage rates in, say, Canada or the UK and whether they are trending differently than those in the US.
* The article notes while there's a racial dimension to who is not marrying, the rather more relevant indicator is class -- the better off you are, the less likely you are to co-habitate or have a child outside of a marriage (and this has been the case for some time). It also notes that the affluent and college-educated are less likely to "marry down" -- marry someone who is not of a similar level of education or income. As a side effect of the affluent marrying the affluent (and the not affluent not marrying as much), the household income disparity between classes is going up. Which is to say that to some extent the decline of marriage is contributing to systematic economic inequalities in the US.
I don't think this means that those in the poor or working classes are doomed to a life of unmarriageability. What I do wonder about is whether those people who raise their class level via education/income leave behind potential marriage partners, and I wonder if intentional or unintentional snobbery is making those people already affluent leave potential partners out of consideration. Anecdotally, I know that black women who have gotten educations or have good jobs are less inclined to marry to black men who are less educated or who have poor job prospects; I suspect these women are not so much outliers as pioneers. There are more women than men entering college and getting degrees, and as they build their own economic and class position, they're going to quite reasonably ask why they should bother considering men who are not their equals in position. This is the genesis of the "all the good ones are taken" line. How many good men -- "good" in the sense of being a useful and loving partner -- are being excluded from consideration?
It's not just the women who do this sort of sorting, of course. Men do it too. Speaking as a member of the educated and affluent class, with one exception I can't think of any man I know who is also educated and affluent who didn't marry someone of equivalent economical and educational stature (there are no "trophy wives" in my peer circle to skew this determination). And likewise, I wonder how many good women are being excluded from marriage consideration because of this social sorting.
(The exception, incidentally, was me -- when Krissy and I met, she was both economically and educationally a step down the ladder from me. And I would be lying if I said to you that for a small time in the early part of our relationship I didn't wonder if it was going to be a problem. This got solved when I realized that she was actually smarter and more sensible than I and if I got stuck on class considerations rather than looking at the actual person I would be stone moron and would deserve the couple-less and lonely life that would inevitably follow. And now, as it happens, Krissy has more degrees than I do and is the one whose job has all the nice benefits and perks, so if someone wants to discuss "marrying down," there'll be some argument as which of us was doing the marrying down. As it is, I know I got lucky. Krissy was the right person for me, period.)
* I am proponent of marriage and the benefits it provides to the adults and the children in it (so much so that I wish to let same-sex couples and their children share in those benefits, which I understands annoys some people), and I think it would be sad if it basically became to province of the well-off, who already have so many things as it is. If one wants encourage marriage (and childbearing and childrearing within it), I think one would consider encouraging the social and economic aspects that in turn encourage marriage. If I had to pick one thing, I think I would focus on education. I'd want to make sure that public elementary and secondary education were uniformly excellent in the United States (which right now it is not) to encourage children of all economic classes to continue the educations that correlate to economic security (and thus, marriage), and that our students didn't leave college or graduate/professional schools so overburdened with debt that they fear marriage will worsen their economic situation rather than improve it.
I suspect this would do a better job of preserving marriage than, say, blocking certain couple from engaging in it, or making it more difficult to divorce once one is married. And in any event the end result would be a better educated populace, from which would stem other, non-marriage-related benefits. Everybody wins.
Thoughts on any or all of this?
Posted by john at March 4, 2007 02:09 PM
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