When marriage disappears : the new middle America

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Starting in the s, the policy context also changed in ways that have undercut marriage and stable family life, especially in poor and working-class communities. Authorizing no-fault divorce, eliminating man-in-the-house rules, and passing more generous welfare programs in the s and s all weakened the legal and economic importance of marriage and two-parent families.

Now, because many means-tested programs have expanded, more than 40 percent of families with children receive support from at least one transfer program—such as Medicaid, food stamps, and Pell Grants; many of these programs penalize marriage. Such penalties may currently play a modest role in discouraging marriage among poor and working-class couples. In more recent decades, public policies may now be undercutting marriage among working-class families, insofar as marriage penalties related to programs such as Medicaid and food stamps are now more likely to affect working-class families than poor families.

Finally, the civic fabric of America has frayed since the s in ways that have disparately affected poor and working-class Americans—and their families. Membership and involvement in secular and religious organizations have declined across the board, but they have fallen more precipitously among poor and working-class Americans. This is particularly true for religious institutions, which often offer psychic, social, and moral support to marriage and family life. Indeed, Americans who regularly attend religious service are more likely to marry, have children in wedlock, avoid divorce, and enjoy higher-quality relationships.

Moreover, many of these religious institutions have been less likely to clearly and regularly address issues related to marriage and family life since the s.

Because of demographic changes in the pews and changes in the broader culture and the churches, pastors, priests, and lay leaders have become more reluctant to address topics related to sex, marriage, divorce, and nonmarital childbearing. This Opportunity America—AEI—Brookings research brief documents major differences in marriage and family life between working-class and middle- and upper-class Americans. Moreover, the roots of the marriage divide between the middle and upper class and the working class in America are clearly varied. No single panacea will bridge this divide.

Policymakers, business leaders, and educators need to pursue a range of educational and work-related policies to shore up the economic foundations of working-class and poor families. They also need to eliminate or minimize the marriage penalties embedded in many of our means-tested policies. Finally, leaders need to pursue a strategy to extend norms around marriage and childbearing—which remain strong among the middle and upper class—to working-class and poor women and men.

The alternative to taking steps like these is to accept a world where middle- and upper-class Americans benefit from strong, stable families while everyone else faces increasingly fragile families, and where high rates of economic inequality and child poverty are locked in by a marriage divide that puts working-class and poor Americans—and their children—at a stark disadvantage.

Currently, this covers about 21 percent of the adult population age 18— This covers about 22 percent of the adult population age 18— This includes about 57 percent of the adult population age 18— Income is adjusted for family size. Wendy Wang and W. Bradford Wilcox et al.

Susan L. Andrew J. Figures 9 through 12 are based on education alone; they do not incorporate data regarding household income.

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

Daniel Lichter, Diane K. McLaughlin, and David C. Scott J. Lloyd R.

Cohen and Joshua D. Bradford Wilcox, Joseph P. Robert D. Sign up for our mailing list to receive ongoing updates from IFS.


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The privileged reap the benefits of stable marriages, whereas poor and ordinary families are burdened by growing instability and conflict in their lives. Marriage: The Next Chapter With marriage expanding in once unimaginable ways, what might the next stage in this evolution be? Related Discussions. Specifically, the percentage of year-old girls with highly educated mothers living with both their parents rose from 80 to 81 percent from the s to the s, but the percentage of year-old girls with moderately educated mothers living with both parents fell from 74 to 58 percent.

And the percentage of year-old girls with the least-educated mothers living with both parents fell from 65 to 52 percent.

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Overall, then, the family lives of today's moderately educated Americans increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children. In an era in which jobs and the economy are the overriding concerns, why should we care about the marriages of Middle America? Marriage is not merely a private arrangement between two persons. It is a core social institution, one that helps to ensure the economic, social, and emotional welfare of countless children, women, and men in this nation.

Today's retreat from marriage among the moderately educated middle is placing the American Dream beyond the reach of too many Americans. It makes the lives of mothers harder and drives fathers further away from families. It increases the odds that children from Middle America will drop out of high school, end up in trouble with the law, become pregnant as teenagers, or otherwise lose their way. As marriage—an institution to which all could once aspire—increasingly becomes the private playground of those already blessed with abundance, a social and cultural divide is growing.

Commitment forum: Middle America's retreat from marriage

It threatens the American experiment in democracy and should be of concern to every civic and social leader in our nation. More than a decade ago, The State of Our Unions was launched with the aim of making important contributions to the ongoing national conversation about marriage by tracking the social health of marriage in America. Each issue offers readers updated statistics on marriage and family trends from sources including the US Census Bureau and the General Social Survey, as well as thoughtful commentary on the forces driving those trends and their implications for children and families across the nation.

With the release of this year's issue, When Marriage Disappears , we hope to turn the national conversation toward the state of our unions in Middle America. Elizabeth Marquardt and W. Bradford Wilcox Dec 7 Making the case for a new Olympics model. What do professors want? The real harms of prostitution An ecological blind spot 50 years of the Pill Red carpet morality The pain of anonymous parentage How the Nazis engineered a paedophile priests scare The ultimate conversation stopper: does life have meaning?