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Inequality damages marriage

Wedded bliss is becoming an elite privilege

January 6, 2015 2:00AM ET

Add marriage to the growing list of victims of government policies that favor the rich at the expense of everyone else. Marriage is becoming less common down the income ladder and more common and durable among the prosperous, analysis of marriage, divorce and other records shows.

Social conservatives say marriage makes for economically sound families, but the empirical evidence shows that, on the contrary, steady incomes and jobs make for sound marriages. Job stability benefits both employers through greater productivity and families through more cohesion.

Marriage inequality also affects children. Prosperous parents lavish investments of time and money for enrichment classes and social activities on their offspring, while poor parents struggle just to pay the rent at the expense of interacting with their children as budgets for preschoolers and child-development programs take hit after hit.

Marriage as class privilege

In their new book “Marriage Markets,” law professors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn look at how economics affects who marries, whose bonds endure and what this means for future generations of workers and parents. The authors demonstrate from official data and survey research that “the terms on which men and women find it worthwhile to forge lasting relationships” are changing “in ways that pushed the top and the bottom of the socioeconomic system in different directions.”

Let’s start with the overall decline in divorce rates over the last third of a century. This general trend obscures a crucial class difference: Divorce rates for couples in which the wife has a college degree are on a long downward slope, while divorce rates for those without a degree are at record highs.

Another big surprise buried in the data: The old shotgun marriage is becoming history. In 1982 the nonmarital birth rate for white women under age 45 with a high school diploma was 4 percent; today it is 34 percent. For white high school dropouts, the rate is 42 percent and for black dropouts 96 percent.

Not only is most of the increase among white working-class women, it is also among women in their 20s. This provides a strong clue about how government rules that skew economic gains affect the marriage market.

Women look for mates who will be committed to them and their children and who will be able to provide for them. In a world where stable jobs at all levels become less common, where working class jobs are scarce and where the median wage has been stagnant for almost a generation, those in the market adapt.

For those on the bottom third of the income ladder, divorce rates have risen because “increasing disparities between men and women have made both more likely to give up on each other,” write Carbone and Cahn.

The tendency to marry class equals narrows the prosperous class while making that elite much wealthier per family.

Job instability as well as alcohol and drug abuse among the bottom third makes for fewer men who are seen as desirable spouses. In turn, lower-income men, given their precarious finances, have become commitment shy, often seeing women not as partners but as liabilities, Carbone and Cahn argue. They say that these patterns encourage women to invest in their own resources rather than in the men in their lives. When a marriage hits a rough patch, they are more likely to move on to new relationships.

“Family stability is an inevitable casualty,” the authors conclude.

Concentrating elite advantage

At the top of the income ladder, we see a very different picture. In the mid-1960s college-educated women were less likely to be married than those who went only to high school. Today the opposite is true. Not only are college-educated women more likely to be wed, but they also tend to marry men who are college-educated as well and to enjoy more enduring unions, which the authors attribute to their more robust finances.

The result is doctors marrying other doctors and executives marrying other executives. This tendency to marry class equals narrows the prosperous class while making that elite much wealthier per family.

Insofar as this trend generates more durable marriages, it’s a positive development, Carbone and Cahn argue. They also note that among the upper tiers of income and social class, marriageable men outnumber women, allowing women to exercise more power in picking mates.

But this trend also has a downside: Carbone and Cahn contend that leads to “concentrating elite advantage in the process as overwhelming numbers of” well-educated two-career couples raise their children in financially secure, two-parent families.

In fact, one of the most ominous findings concerns changes in the amount of time spent with children during their first year of life, which is the most crucial period for development.

In 1970 mothers with a high school education and those with a college degree spent roughly equal amounts of time each day with their infants. These days, however, more-affluent mothers spend on average an hour a day more parenting newborns.

Concerns about this problem are reinforced by efforts to cut taxpayer investments in children, especially poor children, on the theory that this is not a social responsibility but a duty of those who become parents.

For example, Head Start, which provides early child education and support for low-income families, is a smart investment, according to a new economic study. But the federal program continues to face attacks from conservatives. 

Erosion of family values

As for families at the median — the point at which half of families make more, half less — the data are muddled. The authors caution that it is not yet clear whether marriages and families in the middle are merely treading water or sinking.

What is clear is that as the path to middle-class life with stable incomes has become more uncertain and the division between the top and bottom has become sharper and more rigid.

The United States is the only advanced country that does not require paid parental leave and does not spend tax dollars to support this on the theory that it is an investment in the next generation.

The lesson here is that ever more government welfare for the wealthy, which I have spent two decades documenting, and rules that suppress wages and discourage job creation harm more than just the broad economy. They erode family values.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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