Why Marriage is Declining in Middle America

For years the media has reported on the rise of non-marital births among the poor, but now the decline of marriage is well underway among the working middle class. These individuals have completed high school and some college but they do not have a four-year college degree. They comprise about 51% of young adults.

So, why has marriage gone out of fashion among this group? A good summary of the current research can be found in a report by W. Bradford Wilcox and Andrew J Cherlin – The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America. The Brookings Institute brought these two family scholars together – Wilcox, an avowed conservative, and Cherlin, a liberal – to examine the causes of the decline of marriage in Middle America and to explore possible policy responses.

While Wilcox and Cherlin have somewhat different “takes” on the issue, both agree that the causes for the decline of marriage are both economic and cultural. On the economic front, they point to the decline of decent paying jobs since the 1970s due to automation and global competition. The new economy is especially difficult for young men with only a high school education. The jobs they find tend to offer lower wages and may be short-term or part-time.

Yet Wilcox and Cherlin find that “a strong norm still exists among both young men and young women in Middle America that men, at least, should have a steady, stable source of income before a marriage is feasible.” So, marriage is often put off until times are better, but those good times may never come about. And, sadly, those that do marry may file for divorce later. Despite all the tabloids’ coverage of rich celebrity break-ups, the fact is there are more divorces among the working class than among the better educated and affluent.

But economic conditions cannot fully explain the demise of marriage among the working class. After all, during the Great Depression couples married and stay married despite catastrophically hard times. So, another cause is cultural. Wilcox and Cherlin point to three cultural changes:

1) new norms concerning sexual activity, births and marriage;
2) declines in religious participation; and,
3) laws that uphold individual rights rather than marriage.

The availability of birth control pills has relaxed concerns about sex outside of marriage for young adults of all social classes. However, while the college-educated have become more marriage-minded, with a desire to have children only after marrying, the opposite trend is at work among the couples of Middle America.

Indeed, the stigma of having a child outside of marriage is fading among this group of young adults. Wilcox and Cherlin observe: “They increasingly embrace the same, somewhat counterintuitive position that many poor Americans hold, namely, that one should not marry until several criteria are met, including steady employment and a loving relationship, but that having children is too important to delay.”

Meanwhile, there has been a shift away from organized religion: “From the 1970s to the present, the share of moderately-educated Americans attending church about once a week or more fell 12 percentage points, from 40 to 28 percent.”  This trend may also be undermining marriage as Church attendance fosters strong marriages and stable family life. Finally, Wilcox and Cherlin believe that the emergence of “no-fault” divorce laws may have undermined respect for the institution of marriage.


Posted: July 11, 2014

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