Changes in Marriage Increase Class Divide
In the 1960s, half of all wives were housewives, and their husbands often earned enough money to support a family. Today, these traditional families are a rarity and two incomes have become essential to surviving economically.
A new joint report by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution argues that poor and working-class families’ increasingly fragile family structure – despite the rise of dual-income spouses – often leaves them “doubly disadvantaged.” And lower marriage rates among poor and low-income couples help to explain why “America is increasingly divided by class,” write the authors, W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and Wendy Wang, research director for the Institute for Family Studies.
They explain that higher rates of divorce and of couples cohabiting affected the poor’s marriage rate first and most harshly in the 1960s; working-class couples were next, though to a lesser extent in the 1980s. Marriage is far more common among the middle and upper classes.
The authors cite several economic and social forces behind these trends. The losses that less-educated, lower-income men “have experienced since the 1970s in job stability and real income have rendered them less ‘marriageable.’ ” Stagnant or declining wages for middle- and working class couples impede their ability to afford a home, which is the most valuable financial asset most households own. Couples lacking property may “have fewer reasons to avoid divorce.”
The authors also contend that cultural shifts had weakened the family before the economic problems surfaced, though not everyone would agree with this view. Specifically, they said that the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, an expression of individualism, hasn’t mix well with marriage in particular for people with less education.
Americans’ waning involvement in civic and religious organizations also eliminated important social supports for people with fewer material resources. The financial and other stresses of poor and working-class young adults also “make it more difficult for them to navigate today’s choices related to sex, contraception, childbearing and marriage,” the authors write.
The solution, say the conservative AEI and more liberal Brookings Institution, is “to pursue a range of educational and work-related policies to shore up the economic foundations of working-class and poor families.” There is disagreement about whether or how to do this.
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