Untying the knot?

For many Americans, the term “average American family” conjures up images of an idyllic nuclear family: a mother, a father, 2 kids, and, maybe, a dog. The reality is far from the truth. Over the past several decades, U.S. families have undergone a series of fairly radical transformations. In particular, marriage appears to be on the decline for many Americans. The reason for this trend is the subject of a new book by Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

Cherlin’s book, Labor’s Love Lost, is about, as its title states, “the rise and fall of the working class-family in America.” The key-take away from the book is that the period of high marriage rates for a broad swathe of the U.S population during the middle of the 20th century was an anomaly. In previous periods of U.S. history, marriage rates were relatively low. The rates today are broadly comparable to those from 1880 to 1910, the Gilded Age. That these periods of low marriage rates coincide with periods of high and rising levels of inequality is not a coincidence, according to Cherlin.

To be clear, this relationship doesn’t mean that rising inequality definitely caused the decline in marriage rates. Rather, as Cherlin argues in a New York Times opinion piece, changes in the labor market that drive rising income inequality contributed to the decline of suitable husbands. In other words, economic dislocation and lack of employment contributed to a decline in marriage. As an article in today’s The New York Times shows, the employment rate for American men has been on the decline for a while.

But the decline in marriage can’t be placed solely at the feet of rising inequality and a changing labor market. As W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and the American Enterprise Institute, points out, changing mores in the United States also explain some of the decline in marriage for working-class Americans. As Wilcox puts it, “the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s . . . played a key role in making divorce, single parenthood, and nonmarital childbearing more acceptable to the public at large.” These cultural trends are more concentrated among those on the lower and middle rungs of the income ladder. To be sure, divorce rates also are on the decline, but Cherlin says that is largely because divorces are now frowned upon by higher income families.

The economic consequences of the diverging trends are fairly substantial. Consider economic mobility. According to research by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty and others, areas with higher rates of family instability have lower levels of economic mobility. Understanding how to promote family stability may not just help families today, but outcomes for their children in the years ahead.

December 12, 2014

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