The Marriage Divide: How and Why Working-Class Families Are More Fragile Today

“First, poor Americans became markedly less likely to get and stay married. Then, starting in the 1980s, working-class Americans became less likely to get and stay married.3 The current state of marriage and family life and the class divisions that mark America’s families can be seen by looking at contemporary trends in marriage, cohabitation, nonmarital childbearing, divorce, children’s family structure, and marital quality.”

 

When it comes to marriage and family life, America is increasingly divided. College-educated and more affluent Americans enjoy relatively strong and stable marriages and the economic and social benefits that flow from such marriages. By contrast, not just poor but also working-class Americans face rising rates of family instability, single parenthood, and life-long singleness. Their families are increasingly fragile and poor and working-class Americans pay a serious economic, social, and psychological price for the fragility of their families.1

The Fragility of Working-Class Marriages and Families

Before the 1970s, there were not large class divides in American family life. The vast majority of Americans got and stayed married, and most children lived in stable, two-parent families.2 But since the 1960s, the United States has witnessed an emerging substantial marriage divide by class. First, poor Americans became markedly less likely to get and stay married. Then, starting in the 1980s, working-class Americans became less likely to get and stay married.3 The current state of marriage and family life and the class divisions that mark America’s families can be seen by looking at contemporary trends in marriage, cohabitation, nonmarital childbearing, divorce, children’s family structure, and marital quality.

One of the most dramatic indicators of the marriage divide in America is the share of adults age 18–55 who are married. Figure 1 indicates that a majority of middle- and upper-class Americans are married, whereas only a minority of working-class Americans are married. This stands in marked contrast to the 1970s, when there were virtually no class divides in the share of adults married, and a majority of adults across the class spectrum were married.4 At the same time, Figure 1 indicates that working-class Americans fall almost halfway between poor and middle- and upper-class Americans when it comes to the share who are married.*

When it comes to coupling, poor and working-class Americans are more likely to substitute cohabitation for marriage. Figure 2 shows that poor Americans are almost three times more likely to cohabit, and working-class Americans are twice as likely to cohabit, compared with their middle- and upper-class peers age 18–55.

Taken together, these figures suggest that lower- income and less-educated Americans are more likely to be living outside of a partnership. Specifically, about six in 10 poor Americans are single, about five in 10 working-class Americans are single, and about four in 10 middle- and upper-class Americans are single.

However, when it comes to another fundamental feature of family life—childbearing—working-class and especially poor women are more likely to have children than their middle- and upper-class peers (see Figure 3). Estimates derived from the 2013–15 National Survey of Family Growth indicate that poor women currently have about 2.4 children, compared with 1.8 children for working-class women, and 1.7 children for middle- and upper-class women. Poor women, in particular, start childbearing earlier and end up having markedly more children than more affluent women.

But the fact that working-class and poor Americans are less likely to be married also means they are more likely to have these children outside of wedlock. In fact, as Figure 4 indicates, children born to working-class mothers are almost three times as likely to be born outside of wedlock, compared with children born to middle- and upper-class mothers. Children born to poor mothers are about five times as likely to be born out of wedlock.

Two points are particularly salient here. First, nonmarital childbearing is comparatively rare among more affluent and educated women. Second, it is still the case that a majority of babies born to working-class mothers are born in wedlock. In other words, marriage is still connected to parenthood for most working-class parents having a baby.

Divorce is also more common among working-class and poor adults age 18–55, provided that they have married in the first place. Figure 5 shows that less than one-third of ever-married middle- and upper-class men and women have ever been divorced. Among working-class and poor men and women who have ever married, more than 40 percent have ever been divorced.

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