Thursday, June 30, 2011

The "Marriage Gap"

With marriage and family issues apparently permanently in the news, it is reasonable to ask what - not necessarily as a matter of theory or moral principle but as a practical social matter - constitutes the greatest pressing danger to the institution of marriage and family life in the United Sates today? Not that long ago, one would almost certainly have answered divorce. I grew up in the era before most states had adopted “no fault” divorce, when the harm done by divorce was widely acknowledged and was emphasized much more than any supposed benefits of divorce, - a time when divorces were (compared to later) relatively rare (and even rarer among Catholics). All that changed as the divorce rate rose in the 1960s and 1970s, peaked around 1981 at 5.3 divorces per 1000 persons, then leveled off, and ever since has been trending somewhat downward to now 3.6 per 1000, the lowest rate since 1970.

Unfortunately, however, so have the number of weddings! In 1950, nearly half the households in the US consisted of a married couple with children. According to the 2010 census, that is now down to 20%. Of course, some of that simply reflects that fact many now get married at a later age and many are also living longer as widows or widowers. But it also reflects the greater percentage of unmarried couples, single-parent families, and single-person households.

The social reality is even more problematic than those general statistics suggest, however. Fifty years ago, marriage was an almost universal experience, widely shared across cultural and class lines. That is what seems significantly no longer to be the case today. What is being called a “marriage gap” now exists between a more affluent and more educated segment of the population, more likely both to marry and to stay married, and a less affluent and less educated population, which is less likely to marry and more likely to divorce. It’s not that marriage has no attraction for the less well-off in our society. Studies suggest that those with only a high school education (or less) would also like to be married but that they increasingly feel they can’t afford it. When one recalls that, half a century ago, a young man with a high school diploma could still get a good job with which to support a family, and then we look at the comparable situation today, should we be surprised at this result? One consequence of this is that almost half the children being born today to those with only a high school education are being born outside of marriage. Such families are increasingly likely to be poorer, while more affluent, more educated, married families are increasingly better off.

So apparently the principal present obstacle to successful marriage in the United States is not being well off and well educated. Thus, it seems greatest threat to the institution of marriage (and thus to the family) in the United Sates today may be a state of affairs in which economic inequality and lack of opportunity have not only been on the increase but have become more extreme than at any time in the memory of most Americans living today.

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