Marriage Is Increasingly a Privilege of the Educated, Rich

portrait of happy newly wed...
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By Juliette Fairley

The labor market has collapsed in recent decades, and so has the family life led by moderately educated men that depended on it, according to a new book. Instead, more of the working class are cohabitating and having children out of wedlock much like the poor have done historically.

"If these cohabitating unions were stable and lasted for decades, they would be an effective substitute for marriage, and I would not be concerned but that's not the case," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy with Johns Hopkins University and author of "Labor's Love Lost."

But as a result, American children are increasingly growing up in unstable homes. "Children born into these unions are exposed to instability as their parent's partners move in and out of households," he said. "These kids experience unstable and complex households as stepchildren or half-children are introduced into the family and as a result they are at risk for having their development harmed by such a great amount of turnover and complexity."

Compared to the high school educated Millennials bypassing marriage for cohabitation, college-educated young adults are continuing to postpone marriage and childbirth to invest in their education and careers. "A college degree is the closest thing we have to a class boundary in the U.S. in terms of family unit," Cherlin said.

Remember Ozzie and Harriet?

It used to be that in blue collar families, the husband worked a factory or construction job, and the wife worked part time or not at all. This tradition peaked in the 1950s and early 1960s when factory jobs were plentiful and paid well, but as factory work disappeared into computer chips or moved overseas, the number of jobs that sustained working class families has dropped and the attitudes toward having a child out of marriage or cohabitating has evolved.

"The marriage prospects of highly educated, high-earning women have improved since the 1980s and the divorce rates have fallen but what makes marriage more rewarding and wealth producing for the educated now make it less attainable and risky for uneducated workers," said Stephanie Coontz, professor with Evergreen State College and author of "Marriage: A History."

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Unemployed men and women are largely unattractive as partners.%That's because unemployed men and women are largely unattractive as partners. "In the absence of any payoff or gratification, it's human nature to seek other sources of identity and self of esteem," said Coontz. "For women without a good education and job prospects, it means pursuing romance and having children while for men it might involve sexual conquest."

One solution involves shoring up community colleges and apprenticeship programs that open a path to mid-level jobs like medical technician and computer controlled machine operator. "It won't fully solve the problem because we don't have enough mid-level jobs to go around," Cherlin said. "We can also increase minimum wage." Currently minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25 an hour.

"For women with earning potential, legally hitching yourself to a man who might lose his job or misuse your resources can leave you worse off then if you stayed single," said Coontz. "This misuse or abuse is more likely with the traumatic collapse of generational expectations and chronic economic insecurity because it creates escape mechanisms such as abuse and infidelity."
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