Once upon a time, marriage was an expectation. Those who did not “take the plunge” were looked at with suspicion, gossiped about and speculated on from behind closed doors. Today, however, the expectation has faded away. Increasingly, a larger percentage of Americans have opted to either wait to get married or to avoid the ceremony altogether.
“Marriage is no longer compulsory,” said Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University, in a statement. “It’s just one of an array of options. “Increasingly, many couples choose to cohabit and still others prefer to remain single.”
“The divorce rate remains high in the U.S., and individuals today are less likely to remarry than they were in the past,” Brown said.
With only 51 percent of all American adults married, according to 2011 census figures, the traditional notion of marriage is eroding away for reasons other than volition. According to a 2010 Pew Research report, 64 percent of all college graduates are married, compared to just 48 percent of adults that have a high school diploma or less. This is despite similar desire to get married; however, those with less education place a higher value on financial stability as a reason to get married than those with more education.
“It’s more educated, more affluent and also more religious Americans that tend to get married in the first place,” said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. This represents a 70-years long reversal in marriage rates, where — in the 1940s — college educated women were the least likely to marry.
“The doctor used to marry the nurse”
“Since 1970, the marriage rate has declined by almost 60 percent,” read a blog post from Bowling Green’s family research center.“‘Marriage is no longer compulsory,’ said Brown. ‘It’s just one of an array of options. Increasingly, many couples choose to cohabit and still others prefer to remain single.’”
“Furthermore, a woman’s average age at first marriage is the highest it’s been in over a century, at nearly 27 years old. ‘The age at first marriage for women and men is at a historic high point and has been increasing at a steady pace,’ states Dr. Wendy Manning, co-director of the Center.”
This presents a problem as it is reflective of what is happening in the economy. As well-educated or affluent individuals are marrying within their classes, the chances of economic migration by marriage are shrinking. “The doctor used to marry the nurse. Today, the doctor marries the doctor,” said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. This is creating a situation in which the upper-classes are pulling farther away — both socially and economically from the lower-classes.
“A new ‘marriage gap’ in the United States is increasingly aligned with a growing income gap,” report Pew. “Marriage, while declining among all groups, remains the norm for adults with a college education and good income but is now markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The survey finds that those in this less-advantaged group are as likely as others to want to marry, but they place a higher premium on economic security as a condition for marriage. This is a bar that many may not meet.”
“The survey also finds striking differences by generation. In 1960, two-thirds (68%) of all twenty-somethings were married. In 2008, just 26% were. How many of today’s youth will eventually marry is an open question. For now, the survey finds that the young are much more inclined than their elders to view cohabitation without marriage and other new family forms — such as same sex marriage and interracial marriage — in a positive light.”
“Denying full access”
The marriage rates for African-Americans, Latinos and the poor are also dropping at a rate higher of that for the affluent or the middle class. This risks the possibility of expanding the disparency gap, as married individuals have a greater lifetime earning potential than single individuals.
As reported by Today.com: “The wealth differences can be significant. [The Ohio State University’s research scientist Jay] Zagorsky’s research has shown that people who got and stayed married each had about double the wealth of single people who never married. Together, the couple’s wealth was four times that of a single person’s.”
“Other data also shows that married people see stronger financial advantages than just a doubling of wealth. According to the Census Bureau, in 2010 the median net worth for a married couple between the ages of 55 and 64 was $261,405. That compares to $71,428 for a man heading a household, and $39,043 for a woman heading a household.” This is due to the fact that, among a married couple, there is a division of labor, which allows for more time and energy committed to professional efforts.
This has the potential of not only undermining entire demographics and denying full access to attainment from those most underserved in American society, but to establish this phenomenon as the “new normal” for these groups. For example, among African-American women, the marriage rate is just 26 percent. This amounts to a situation where single-parent families are the norm.
This is not exclusively a racial issue, but a class issue. “Today, the average woman bearing a child outside of marriage is a twenty-something white woman with a high school degree,” read the University of Virginia’s “The President’s Marriage Agenda.” “Like their fellow young adults, she and her child’s father are beset by economic stress and institutional change on many fronts. Many jobs have disappeared from their communities, health care is uncertain, and the cost of housing and higher education have shot up. While most children born outside of marriage are born to cohabiting couples, such unions are far more likely to break up than married ones. Which means that today’s children of Middle America are growing up without stable families to help them weather economic change, deregulation, and globalization. The loss of social opportunities for these children and their families, and the national cost to taxpayers when stable families fail to form — about $112 billion annually, or more than $1 trillion per decade, by one cautious estimate — are significant.”
In addressing the issues of correcting the attainment gap, it might be necessary to look inside the home first toward finding solutions. The nation must ask what type of worker it is creating for the next generation and if the nation is giving them the best opportunities to achieve. Sometimes, but not always, that amounts to be raised in a safe, two-parent home.