Decline in marriage – it’s the economy

Working-class Americans are passing up going to the altar. Fixing the economy could help change that.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters/File
A protester holds up a sign at a demonstration calling for unions and higher wages outside McDonald's in Times Square in New York City in November 2012. A lack of good jobs has had an another effect on working-class Americans: They're marrying less often.

Love and marriage. They’re hitched together, traditionally. But more and more today they’re being forced to lead separate lives.

A good marriage can yield all kinds of emotional benefits, including happiness, companionship, and even better health, according to some studies. Marriage also can serve as a strong economic foundation, with each partner supporting the other’s efforts to provide for the family.

But a new study suggests another, more detrimental link between money and marriage: Joblessness or other economic insecurity leads to fewer marriages. That not only deprives those individuals of the benefits of marriage, in a broader context it deprives society of the benefits of marriage as well.

The disappearance of well-paying jobs for America’s working class – those with no more than a high school education – is taking a toll on marriage, a new study says.

“Working-class people with insecure work and few resources, little stability, and no ability to plan for a foreseeable future become concerned with their own survival and often become unable to imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others,” says Sarah Corse, the study’s lead author.

If someone can’t handle their own problems, she says, they’re less likely to want to take on someone else’s – such as a low-paying job or a big debt burden. In that light, marriage doesn’t look so appealing. “It doesn’t make sense to people to plan for the future if you don’t even know if you’ll have a paycheck,” she says.

The study, “Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape,” was presented at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City today.

Well-paying jobs with benefits and pensions continue to vanish for those who lack college degrees or other post-high school educations as manufacturing jobs fly overseas to lower-wage countries.

The recent furor over the low wages paid at fast-food restaurants is a direct result of these missing jobs: Positions that were meant to be staffed by high-schoolers looking for part-time work now are being snapped up by adults trying to feed a family. These minimum-wage jobs provide a kind of low-nutrition, “fast-food income” – enough to fill your stomach for a day or two but not what you’d want to live on month after month.

The trend lines are clear: Marriage is becoming a luxury reserved for the wealthy and well educated. While some 60 percent of US women with a bachelor’s degree are married, for example, less than 30 percent of those who never graduated from high school are.

Though US poverty is often associated with minorities, the largest number of poor people in the US are white. “Poverty is no longer an issue of ‘them,’ it’s an issue of ‘us,’” says Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has looked at the numbers. “Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need.”

The “Love and Work” study also shows that efforts to better educate youths should pay off: Educated middle-class workers were better able to weather the effects of periods of joblessness, the study says.

Next week President Obama will continue his summer road trip, taking his message on how to kickstart the economy on a bus trip through New York and Pennsylvania. He’s expected to promote, among other proposals, spending on infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, that would boost economic growth and produce middle-class jobs. Republicans will be countering with their own ideas.

As the fall debate over how to revive the economy heats up, it’s important to understand everything that’s at stake. Effective efforts to boost the economy can have a less obvious benefit: They will strengthen marriage and, in turn, stabilize society.

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