Marriage, Family and Income Inequality

In the current edition of the Washington Monthly, Anne Kim notes something you have probably heard about before.

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.

But then she writes about something that is surprising to hear.

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.

This might simply be an interesting cultural phenomenon to note. But as Kim documents, “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.”

To the extent that the children of “educated elites” are benefiting from married parents and others are not, the big question becomes: “what do we do about it?” Kim notes the failure of Bush era programs to promote marriage. Is it possible to put this genie of marriage back in the bottle? Or is it also necessary to take a broader look at the way that our societal structures of family supports (i.e., extended family, community connections, religious institutions, neighborhood schools) have left single mothers abandoned and alone in child-rearing? Do efforts to reduce poverty actually increase the likelihood of marriage? To the extent that single parenthood contributes to income inequality, why would that be the case in this country but not necessarily in others?

Those are just some of the questions this article by Anne Kim raised for me. For those who are concerned with issues like child poverty and income inequality, it is an important read.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .