When it comes to marriage, the institution is seeing its fastest erosion in “middle America” – the large bulk of the population with some education but no college degree.
Blue-collar Americans, once seen as the bulwark of conservative American attitudes toward marriage and pregnancy out of wedlock, now see marital quality, divorce, and childbearing more like the least educated and poorest Americans, leading to a growing “marriage gap” in American society.
Authors of “The State of Our Unions,” the new report that presents the data, attribute much of the shift to the steady decline of blue-collar jobs in the US, which has ratcheted up financial pressure on moderately educated Americans. Others point to changing – and perhaps unrealistic – perceptions of marriage.
But the implications are significant, with research suggesting that strong marriages correlate to better well-being among adults and children.
“It’s striking how much the bottom has fallen out for middle Americans,” says Bradford Wilcox, author of the study and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, which issued the report along with the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. “There’s a clear connection between what’s happening here and the middle class’s capacity to realize the American dream.”
Among the study’s more notable findings:
- The chance that moderately educated Americans will have children outside of marriage has increased dramatically in the past few decades relative to other populations. In the early 1980s, just 2 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers (those with a college degree) were born outside of marriage, compared with 13 percent of those born to moderately educated mothers and 33 percent of those born to mothers who were high school dropouts. By the late 2000s, those numbers have shifted to 6 percent for highly educated mothers, 44 percent for moderately educated mothers, and 54 percent of babies born to the least educated.
- The cultural foundations of marriage – including religious attendance and faith in marriage as a way of life – now seem to be stronger among the highly educated than the moderately educated.
- At the same time that divorce rates have fallen for the least-educated and most highly educated Americans, they have risen slightly for the moderately educated.
“What’s troubling to me is the way in which these moderately educated Americans are drifting away from the college-educated middle class,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and author of “The Marriage Go-Round: the State of Marriage and the Family Today.”
Links to happiness and prosperity
He and Dr. Wilcox say that the trends are troubling not because of some puritanical value on marriage, but because of the clear links between strong marriage and happiness, economic prosperity, and children’s well-being.
“Their health, wealth, and happiness are all increased when women, and especially men, stay married,” says Wilcox, who notes that children are also much more likely to thrive when their parents stay married.
Moreover, Dr. Cherlin notes that about half of all nonmarriage cohabiting unions – including those with children – break up within five years. “You could argue that there’s nothing wrong with living together," he says. "But if it makes the family lives of children more unstable, then that’s a concern.”
Wilcox says that he sees economic, civic, and cultural reasons for the shift.
The biggest driver, perhaps, is the loss of the high-quality blue-collar jobs which used to be available to those without a college degree, increasing the financial stress on those marriages and making many moderately educated Americans less likely to get married.
“Americans still think you need to have a steady job in order to get married,” notes Cherlin.
Culturally, Wilcox says that there has been a shift in the “marriage mindset,” in which college-educated Americans are more likely to embrace virtues like self-denial, long-term goals, and the importance of education for their children, which lead them to put more emphasis on marriage.
In many ways, Wilcox says, there has been a historic flip, as moderately educated Americans – traditionally the keepers of conservative values – have grown more permissive about things like divorce and premarital sex even as the most-educated are becoming more “marriage-minded.”
“The putative source of heartland values in America has shifted from the middle group to the more educated group,” Wilcox says. He notes that that shift doesn’t mean that the college-educated group is in the midst of becoming the religious right, but that their values when it comes to their own lives and families are decidedly more marriage-minded than they were in the 1970s.
Stacy Silver, a sociologist at Penn State and co-author of “Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing,” offers another reason why cultural commitments to America may be eroding.
At the same time that marriage is becoming less necessary – no longer needed to have sex, a baby, or even for financial stability – it’s taken on a higher symbolic value, she says, and often is viewed with unrealistic expectations.
“We can look at larger cultural things like the economy,” she says. “But we also need to look at our values and expectations.”