Why Is Marriage Thriving Among (and Only Among) the Affluent?

Experts struggle to explain one of the biggest drivers of inequality.

In 1950, the typical man married for the first time at about age twenty-three, while women married at a tender median of twenty. In this heyday of America’s Leave It to Beaver period, few children were born outside marriage—just 7.9 percent of births were “premarital” in 1950, according to census data—and divorce was equally rare.

Today, however, marriage in America seems to be dying.

In 2010, according to the Pew Research Center, only about half of all Americans over age eighteen were married, compared to nearly three out of four in 1960. Americans today are marrying later, if at all, and the share of Americans who’ve never married has climbed to record highs. As one result, the share of children growing up with single moms is also skyrocketing; in 2013, 41 percent of all births were to unmarried women.

But the seeming decline of marriage includes one major caveat: educated elites. When it comes to marriage, divorce, and single motherhood, the 1950s never ended for college-educated Americans, and for college-educated women in particular. According to the researchers Shelly Lundberg, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Robert Pollak, of Washington University in St. Louis, the share of young college-graduate white women who were married in 2010 was a little over 70 percent—almost exactly the same as it was in 1950. College-educated white women are, moreover, half as likely as other women to be divorced, according to Steven Martin of the University of Maryland, and they are also refusing single motherhood. Fewer than 9 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree or more had an unwed birth in 2011—a level barely higher than what it was for all women in 1950.

It’s also seemingly only Americans with four-year degrees or better who appear immune to the broader cultural and social forces eroding marriage. In 1950, white women with “some college,” such as an associate’s degree, were actually more likely to be married than their better-educated sisters. Today, it’s the opposite. Though women with a high school diploma or less have seen the sharpest drop in marriage rates, the decline has been almost as severe—and ongoing—for women just one short rung down the education ladder, regardless of race.

The endurance of marriage among elites—and, it seems, elites alone—is important not just as a cultural anomaly. As the class divide in marriage grows, elites are compounding the advantages of their status, especially for their kids. Since the release of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s now-famed report on the breakdown of black families in 1965, researchers have amassed a growing mountain of evidence that family structure and marriage matter. Compared to children living with single parents, or even with parents who are cohabiting, kids raised in married-parent households are much less likely to grow up in poverty, more likely to do better in school, and more likely to move up the economic ladder even if they start out poor. “There’s no argument about what’s best for kids,” says the economic and social policy expert Ron Haskins, of the Brookings Institution. “It’s to be reared in a stable household by married parents.”

But if there’s growing consensus that class differences in marriage rates are contributing to inequality, there’s far less clarity about the solution. “We don’t know why [these class differences] exist,” says the Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill, one of the nation’s preeminent experts on marriage. But “we certainly know they do exist.”

Without a proven answer about what’s happening to marriage in America, it’s tough for policymakers to figure out exactly how to bring it back. In the early 2000s, the George W. Bush administration embarked on a series of experimental efforts to “promote marriage,” particularly among low-income households. From 2001 to 2010, the federal government invested more than $600 million in “marriage promotion” programs, including a series of demonstration efforts to try out such strategies as marriage and relationship education as well as programs to expand job and training opportunities for low-income men. By and large, the results were disappointing.

A few scholars are advancing new ideas that could open fresh territory in the debate on marriage. But the question of how to save marriage—one of the biggest cultural, social, and economic conundrums facing the country—remains a largely unsolved challenge. As a consequence, a potentially vital lever for reducing inequality remains untapped.

One reason the marriage behavior of elites has been so puzzling is that it defies the popular explanation for marriage’s decline.

During the 1950s, marriage was the best—and perhaps only—route to economic security for women. Just 34 percent of women were in the workforce in 1950, and the absence of reliable contraception meant that a woman’s every sexual encounter was fraught with the risk of unwed motherhood and its accompanying stigma. Single motherhood was economically infeasible as well as socially taboo.

In the ensuing decades, so the story goes, these traditional rationales for marriage—financial security, sex, and respectable motherhood—began to vanish. Women got the Pill and paychecks of their own. Premarital sex lost its stigma, as did single motherhood. By 1990, 58 percent of women were in the workforce, and by 2010, women in the workforce with college degrees outnumbered men. In the meantime, the relative economic status of men declined sharply, leading some to theorize a shortage of “marriageable” men, especially among African Americans. When marriage rates began declining, scholars attributed this to the “independence effect” of the choices now available to women.

Yet the women best positioned to exercise this hard-won independence—college educated, career minded, and with the highest income and resources—were still choosing to marry. In fact, while marriage rates were declining for every other group of women in the 1960s and ’70s, marriage rates for college-educated white women even rose slightly.

Figure 1. Share of Americans Currently Married, 1960 and 2010
Mar-16-Kim3Source: Pew Research Center.

Some scholars argue that while traditional rationales for marriage fell away, elite Americans discovered a new reason to marry: for the advantages it confers on their children in an increasingly competitive economy. “College graduates—
men and women—are using marriage as a ‘commitment device’ to jointly invest a lot in children,” says the scholar Robert Pollak, who recently championed this point of view in the academic journal Future of Children, with coauthor Shelly Lundberg.

Proponents say that these child-centered unions—what the Brookings scholar Richard Reeves calls “HIP,” or “high investment parenting,” marriages—ensure an equal commitment to the project of raising children, including the necessary sacrifices that may be demanded of one parent or another to balance career and family. College graduates, wrote Reeves in the Atlantic, “are reinventing marriage as a child-rearing machine for a post-feminist society and a knowledge economy.” It’s the ultimate in helicopter parenting.

Under this thesis, marriage enables the enormous logistical, emotional, and economic benefits in what’s now the high-stakes enterprise of middle-class and upper-middle-class parenthood. A second income helps pay for the football uniform or for a babysitter to shuttle Junior to his piano lesson if a parent is unavailable to do the driving. A second parent means one more set of eyes on the homework and one more voice to enforce discipline. And the returns to investing in children—such as by ensuring them a college education—have certainly grown over the decades.

But other experts question whether marriage is truly a deliberate parenting strategy, even if higher-achieving kids are a by-product of it. And, as Pollak acknowledges, there’s no empirical evidence to date that aspirations for children directly influence people’s decisions to get married. “I don’t think marriage is just a child-rearing device,” says Sawhill. “A lot of people who are getting married don’t have children and may not even put a high priority on having children. The romantic reason for marriage is not totally obsolete.” The child-centered marriage thesis also raises some discomforting implications about the expectations parents might have for their children, depending on their class. “Aspirations for children may be key to the class divide in marriage,” says Lundberg.

Yet a logical corollary to this theory is that it is only those Americans with the highest expectations for their children who decide to invest in marriage—a notion that is difficult to believe. In fact, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, lower-income parents put a higher value on a college degree than do more affluent ones. While 50 percent of parents earning less than $30,000 a year say that it’s “extremely important” to them that their children graduate from college, only 39 percent of parents earning $75,000 or more say the same.

The simplest explanation for why elites continue to marry at the same rates as they did in 1950, and why they have such high expectations for their children (if that is indeed a factor), is that the 1950s did not, in fact, ever end for them economically. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the only group for whom marriage rates have not declined is the one group for whom incomes have been rising. In 1965, according to Pew, the earnings gap for young adults with a high school diploma versus those with a college degree was only about $7,000, measured in 2012 dollars. But by 2013, that gap had nearly tripled. While a young adult with a high school diploma earned a median of $28,000 in 2013, down from $31,384 in 1965, college graduates earned a median of $45,500, up from $38,833. Real median earnings for young adults with two-year degrees also fell, from $33,655 in 1965 in 2012 dollars to $30,000 in 2013.

Figure 2. Currently Married White Women, Ages 30-44, by Education
Mar-16-Kim1

Source: Shelly Lundberg and Robert A. Pollak, “The Evolving Role of Marriage: 1950-2010,” 2015.

Another wrinkle is that while marriage rates have been declining, people’s aspirations to marry have not fallen as fast. Even as 39 percent of Americans in 2010 told researchers at Pew that “marriage is an institution that is becoming obsolete,” 61 percent of unmarried people said they hoped to get married someday. And even among unmarried adults who said they thought marriage was obsolete, nearly half still planned on marriage for themselves.

As the sociologist Andrew Cherlin described this aspirational view, marriage is now the “capstone,” not the cornerstone, of people’s lives. “Marriage has become a status symbol—a highly regarded marker of a successful personal life,” Cherlin wrote in the New York Times. It’s no wonder, then, that college graduates are the only ones who feel successful enough to marry, and who are also more likely to find partners of equal status with whom to tie the knot.

Figure 3. Share of Currently Married Women, Ages 40-55, by Race and Education, 2012
Mar-16-Kim1

Source: R. Kelly Raley, Megan M. Sweeney, and Danielle Wondra, “The Growing Racial and Ethnic Divide in U.S. Marriage Patterns,” 2015.

But what can public policy do? If marriage is, in fact, a signal of aspiration and a symbol of achievement, it stands to reason that the best way to “promote marriage” might be to improve the declining economic lot of most Americans. However, these improvements will likely need to be substantial. In an extensive review of the impacts of various job training and other programs aimed at raising the economic prospects of men, Daniel Schneider of the University of California, Berkeley, found that these programs had little to no impact on whether a man was more likely to get married. The sole significant exception was a training program called “Career Academies,” which also produced dramatic gains in income compared to the other programs Schneider reviewed. Over an eight-year follow-up period, Career Academies participants saw their incomes rise by a total of $17,000, compared to a control group, and 36 percent of the men who participated in the program were either married or living with a partner, compared to 27 percent of men in the control group.

“I think what we see here is evidence that well-designed—and consequential—interventions can matter for marriage,” says Schneider. “The notion that small economic increases might have big increases on marriage doesn’t seem to bear out.” Rather, the impacts have to be “large enough to affect big life decisions like marriage or childbearing,” Schneider says, not “nudges.”

But the time for major intervention may have come. As the returns to education rise, children handicapped by access to just one parent’s time, attention, and income are at a serious disadvantage. By getting married and staying married, educated parents are compounding the ever-widening gaps in both achievement and opportunity between the haves and have-nots. Without a fix, this growing class divide in marriage will only calcify the social and economic inequality crippling the odds for increasing numbers of children.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly.