Research on Marriage by Class Shows Fragility of American Family

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College-educated and more affluent Americans have relatively strong and stable marriages, in contrast with their poorer and working-class peers who face rising rates of family instability, single parenthood and lifelong singleness. The findings were contained in a report titled “The Marriage Divide: How and Why Working-Class Families Are More Fragile Today,” provided by This Opportunity America—AEI—Brookings.

The research found just 26% of poor Americans age 18 to 55 and 39% of working-class Americans are currently married, compared with 56% of middle- and upper-class Americans.

Adolescents in poor and working-class homes are also significantly less likely to live with their biological parents than their peers from middle- and upper-class homes, 55% compared with 77%.

The class divide regarding marriage would be even wider were it not for the presence of immigrants, who are disproportionately married and members of working class or poor families.

Report authors W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang say the marriage divide began in the 1960s when poor Americans became less likely to get and stay married. Then, starting in the 1980s, working-class Americans became less likely to get and stay married.

The report says when it comes to coupling, poor and working-class Americans are more likely to substitute cohabitation for marriage. Poor Americans are almost three times more likely to cohabit, and working-class Americans are twice as likely to cohabit, compared with their middle- and upper-class counterparts age 18 to 55.

As for childbearing, working-class and poor women are more likely to have children than their middle- and upper-class peers. Estimates from the 2013–15 National Survey of Family Growth indicate poor women have about 2.4 children, compared with 1.8 children for working-class women and 1.7 children for middle- and upper-class women.

Because working-class and poor Americans are less likely to be married, this means they are more likely to have these children outside of wedlock. Children born to working-class mothers are almost three times as likely to be born outside of wedlock, compared with children born to middle- and upper-class mothers. Children born to poor mothers are about five times as likely to be born out of wedlock.

Divorce is also more common among working-class and poor adults age 18 to 55, provided that they have married in the first place. Less than one-third of ever-married middle- and upper-class men and women have ever been divorced. Among working-class and poor men and women who have ever married, more than 40% have ever been divorced.

The share of working-class adults who are married falls to 35% from 39% when only native-born Americans are considered in the data. And the share of working-class adults who are divorced rises to 45% from 41% when the focus is only on native-born Americans.

About six in 10 poor Americans are single, about five in 10 working-class Americans are single and about four in 10 middle- and upper-class Americans are single.

The authors say the nation’s marriage divide is rooted in economic, cultural, policy and civic changes that undercut the financial and communal bases of strong and stable marriages and families in poor and working-class communities.

The authors said:

Policymakers, business leaders, and educators need to pursue a range of educational and work-related policies to shore up the economic foundations of working-class and poor families. They also need to eliminate or minimize the marriage penalties embedded in many of our means-tested policies. And the country’s secular and religious civic leaders should do more to engage and involve working-class and poor Americans— especially poor and working-class men who tend to have the weakest ties to our civic institutions. Leaders need to pursue a strategy to extend norms around marriage and childbearing—which remain strong among the middle and upper class—to working-class and poor women and men.