In a Changed Country, Poor Americans Miss the Benefits of Marriage Most
Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project says the divorce rate has generally decreased since the 1970s, but the most educated married couples tend to divorce the least.
DENVER, Colo. - Marriage has major benefits for children, adults, and society as a whole, said a marriage scholar this week, and the poor and less educated are suffering most from the widening class divide between those who get married and those who don’t.
“What we’re seeing today in America is that upper middle-class Americans are much more likely to get and stay married compared to less educated, working class Americans - that’s the marriage divide in brief,” Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, told CNA April 9.
This divide in family structure is not just a private matter.
“Kids who are born and raised in a stable married family are much more likely to do well in school, to flourish in the labor market later on in life, and themselves to forge strong stable families as adults,” Wilcox said. “Coming from a strong stable family gets kids off to the best start, typically.”
Wilcox spoke on the American marriage divide Tuesday evening at Colorado Christian University in the Denver suburb of Lakewood.
There were “minimal class divides” in American married life 50 years ago, but not today. While 56% of middle- and upper middle-class adults are now married, only 26% of poor adults and 39% of working-class adults are.
The divorce rate has generally decreased since the 1970s, but the most educated married couples tend to divorce the least. Highly educated Americans became much more likely to favor restrictive attitudes towards divorce, while the least educated became much less likely to do so.
“We live in an increasingly segregated country where people tend to live in neighborhoods or communities that mirror their own class, and family makeup,” Wilcox said. Many middle-class Americans live in neighborhoods “dominated” by married families.
By contrast, working-class and poor Americans live in communities with many single people, cohabiting couples and single parent families. From their perspective, “marriage is in much worse shape,” Wilcox said. People in more affluent communities, perhaps without realizing it, “live in a social world where families are pretty stable, most kids are being raised in two-parent families, and everyone benefits from that reality.”
Out-of-wedlock births also show class divides: 64% of poor children are born to an unmarried mother, compared to 36% of the working class and 13% of the middle and upper middle classes. While in 1953, only 20% of children of women with a high school degree or less lived in a single-parent home, that number had risen to 65% in 2012.
While the college educated and affluent tend to have relatively high-quality, stable marriages, poor and working-class Americans are more likely to be struggling.
Today’s upper-middle class stresses marriage before childbirth and rejects “easy divorce.” They have the most families with a male breadwinner and are the most active in religion and civic life.
Wilcox attributed these changes to factors including cultural shifts; changes in the economy due to a post-industrial foundation; a general withdrawal of individuals from social institutions; and public policy.
Children raised in intact, married homes are more likely to avoid poverty, prison and teen pregnancy. They have better economic upward mobility than children raised by a single parent. There is less risk of downward mobility. Child poverty would be about 20% lower if marriage rates had remained as high as in the 1970s, Wilcox said.
Children of cohabiting couples face worse outcomes than children raised by single parents in areas like substance abuse, high school graduation rates, and psychological well-being. They face a higher risk of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Cohabitation features less adult commitment, less trust, and less fidelity than married parents and suffers more family instability.
Divorce is one of the practices that leads to cohabitation, said Wilcox.
The decline in religious attendance among working class Americans is far more severe than among upper middle-class or college-educated Americans.
“The story here is in part an economic story: when people feel they can’t maintain a decent middle class lifestyle economically, they’re less likely to go to church,” Wilcox told CNA. “They’re more likely to feel they don’t belong in a church community.”
The significant shift in sexual mores, family stability, and non-marital childbearing has affected working class Americans “especially hard” and their lifestyle doesn't fit a church ideal, Wilcox suggested.
“If you’re divorced, if you’re cohabiting, if you’re a single mother or a non-essential father, the church can seem like an off-putting place for you,” he said.
Clergy tend to be college-educated and have a natural affinity with some instead of others. Preaching, teaching and ministry has a middle-class or upper middle-class gloss. Wilcox pointed to young adult ministries among Catholics and Evangelicals that secure significant resources to serve those in college, but lack resources for non-college track young adults.
He suggested that preaching geared toward the upper middle class tends toward the “therapeutic and comforting,” whereas “clearer and bolder” preaching and teaching might appeal more to the working class.
The rise of quality, inexpensive entertainment also means it is more likely for people to stay home from worship services, regardless of beliefs.
One possible reason for the changes in class-segmented opinions and behaviors in the past 50 years is upward or downward mobility based on success or failure to form families. Those who follow a “success sequence” could have risen in economic class and education level.
“Part of the story is that in the 1970s, working-class Americans were more heterogeneous in terms of religion, work, and family orientation, whereas today, working-class and poor Americans, if they’re native-born, tend to be less religious, more erratic in family life, and more distant from community and civic institutions,” said Wilcox.
To help bridge this family divide, it is important to cultivate “friendship and civic ties across class lines, and for our churches and civic institutions to do more to integrate people across class lines.”
“Unless poor and working class people have more access to strong and stable models of family life and access to social networks that middle class folks have in terms of job opportunities and the like, we’re not going to address very successfully this marriage divide in America,” he said.
Other civic institutions, like youth athletic leagues, tend to cater to the middle or upper middle class, who provide significant financial support for their children’s sports.
“We should challenge our local athletic non-profits and civic trusts to do more to make sure they are economically integrated,” Wilcox suggested.
Public policy also has “marriage penalties” that hinder people at the upper limits of eligibility for welfare, child care subsidies, and tax credits.
“Nobody intended this but it’s a perverse reality built into the system.” Wilcox said.
While marriage was formerly penalized among the poorest Americans because welfare was targeted at them, the eligibility threshold has risen since the ‘80s. The lower middle class, those in the second-lowest economic quintile, are now the most likely to be penalized and face disincentives to marry, and even incentives to divorce to secure their economic situation.
A couple living together with children might put off marriage because it could harm their children’s access to health care or their access to child care subsidies.
According to Wilcox, communities with weak commitments to marriage and family would benefit from public recognition of a permanent marriage for the sake of children in ways that shape people’s thinking and behavior.
Younger adults in these communities tend to suffer from more marginal employment opportunities, and young men especially need stronger opportunities for education and vocational training. Young men need “a stronger sense of their own self-worth as workers and providers” which can improve their ability to think of marriage as a legitimate option and their ability to be seen as marriageable, he said.