Marriage and Class in America

The point has previously been made by writers such as Charles Murray and Kay Hymowitz: marriage is increasingly becoming a class institution in America. Those who are educated and better off tend to get, and stay, married. Those who aren’t don’t. The New York Times has a long piece describing the issue. I hope it reaches an audience that may not always be as receptive to or aware of the issue.

What makes this division especially concerning is how it tends to reinforce the traits that keep people in their place. Stable families can better resist economic storms. Single parents struggle.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

And the effects are intergenerational. Children brought up in married families have more opportunities and tend to do better in a variety of ways.

This trend makes understanding economic statistics trickier, such as measuring income at the household or individual level. Many of the richer households are richer simply because they have two wage earners rather than one. But each of those wage earners may not earn more than average. I was happy to see this point addressed.

The secret to their success resides in part in old-fashioned math: strength in numbers. Together, the Faulkners earn nearly three times as much as what Ms. Faulkner earns alone. Their high five-figure income ranks them near the 75th percentile — hardly rich, but better off than nearly three of four families with children.

For Ms. Schairer, the logic works in reverse. Her individual income of $24,500 puts her at the 49th percentile among parents: smack in the middle. But with only one paycheck, her family income falls to the 19th percentile, lagging more than four out of five.

It makes it easy for politicians to cherry-pick the measurement they want and people need to be aware of whether we’re talking about household or individual income and how much family structure can affect well-being beyond a number.

Finally, I hope that we’ve left the Murphy Brown myth behind – that single mothers are mostly successful professionals who can get by on one income. It’s the people who could do best without being married who mostly recognize how important it is. We need to spread that message.

“The people who need to stick together for economic reasons don’t,” said Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist. “And the people who least need to stick together do.”

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