America’s New Caste System: The Wedlock Divide

Progressives endlessly lament the way a growing gap in economic well-being divides Americans. Curiously, these progressives say remarkably little about the changes in family life that are fast making that gap permanent. However, in a recently published analysis, scholars at Washington University and the University of California Santa Barbara identify family change as a prime reason the economic chasm separating the haves from the have-nots will prove disturbingly hard to bridge in the generations to come.

To a considerable degree, the authors of the new study focus on the way wedlock has—in a development unprecedented in American history—become a class marker. As the scholars acknowledge, “In 1950 the family arrangements of college graduates and high school graduates were very similar. Men and women married early and most remained married.”

But the analysts limn a stunning “transformation of American family life” since the 1950s, a transformation clearly evident in the national retreat from marriage. And though the marked decline in the prevalence and permanence of marriage has affected the nation as a whole, the researchers see this decline as “especially pronounced among the less educated.”

This especially pronounced retreat from wedlock among the less educated shows up clearly when the scholars chart across time the prevalence of intact marriages among women with only a high school diploma and then compare that to the prevalence of such marriages among peers with a college degree. When the analysts look at U.S. data for 1950, they find that “about 70 percent of 30–44 year old female college graduates and 80 percent of female high school graduates were currently married in 1950.” However, when they look at comparable numbers for 2010, they find that in that year “69 percent of college graduate women were married, compared to 56 percent of those with a high school degree.” Numbers for men run largely parallel.

But to explain the sharp drop in the percentage of minimally educated women in intact marriages, the analysts must examine more than plummeting marriage rates among these women. They must also scrutinize the spike in divorce rates in this population. The researchers calculate that recent divorce rates run “roughly 40 percent lower for college graduates” than for peers with only a high school degree.  

Not surprisingly, the analysts also adduce evidence indicating that “the decoupling of marriage and childbearing is [now] much more prevalent among those without college degrees” than it is among peers with degrees. “Births to unmarried women were uncommon in 1950,” remark the authors. They note that “as marriage rates fell, non-marital childbearing increased,” but at decidedly faster rates among minimally educated women than among their well-educated peers. The analysts point out that in 1980, only one in twenty births to women with college degrees was out of wedlock (5%), while almost one in four births to their minimally educated peers (24%) was out of wedlock. “By 2013,” remark the analysts, “non-marital childbearing among college graduates had risen to 11 percent, compared to 58 percent for high school graduates.”

In this decoupling of marriage and childbearing among less-educated Americans, cohabitation figures prominently. “Compared with college graduates,” the analysts remark, “less-educated women are more likely to enter into cohabiting partnerships early and bear children while cohabiting, [and] are less likely to transition quickly into marriage . . . . For this group, rising rates of cohabitation and non-marital childbearing contribute to family histories of relatively unstable relationships and frequent changes in family structure.”

Thus, though they concede that marital and family patterns have changed in remarkable ways for America as a whole, the analysts stress that “college graduates have retained more traditional patterns of marriage and parenting than have men and women with less education.” 

Some readers may detect a puzzling irony in the relatively strong commitment to traditional family patterns among college graduates.  After all, the university has been the incubator for feminist, Marxist, homosexual, and environmentalist movements subversive of traditional family patterns. Though the authors of this new analysis never confront this irony, readers might wonder if college graduates have perhaps grown sufficiently skeptical of their professors’ antifamily ideologies and sufficiently conscious of the positive and pragmatic benefits of family ties to commit themselves to marriage and family. Readers may also wonder if the poorly educated may be falling for downmarket versions of the antifamily credos university professors have been pushing in recent decades. 

The authors of this new analysis—like most academics—probably subscribe to at least some of the progressive theorizing that has subverted family life. Readers may indeed discern authorial sympathy with such credos in the analysts’ assertion that recent changes in family life mean that women “today find themselves with greater independence and control over their lives.”  

But the analysts are honest enough to acknowledge that these same changes in family life have put women at “increased risk of poverty,” given that “poverty rates are substantially higher for unmarried women with children at all levels of education than for married women with children” and given that these poverty rates inevitably run especially high for single mothers with only a high school education.  

But of course, poorly educated unmarried mothers are not the only ones suffering from the adverse effects of changes in family life. These changes in family life have also exposed the children of these unwed mothers to a host of unfortunate evils. These children, the researchers acknowledge, are much more likely than the offspring of married and more educated mothers “to experience a change (or multiple changes) in the presence of a father . . . [in their lives] and to grow up in a complex family with step- and half siblings” during a “childhood . . . [of] greater instability and more limited father involvement” than that experienced by the children of college graduates. 

As the Washington and California Santa Barbara scholars pore over the differences separating children of unwed, poorly educated mothers from children of married mothers with college degrees, they do so with a keen awareness of  “the enormous literature on the association between family structure and outcomes for children document[ing] strong and consistent correlations between child outcomes such as educational attainment, crime, and mental health, and family structure.” These scholars are also cognizant of studies showing that “parental cohabitation (as opposed to marriage) is . . . strongly associated with adverse outcomes for children and adolescents.”

The analysts understand that the adverse effects of growing up as the child of a poorly educated unmarried mother are hardly short-lived.  They know that these malign effects persist into adulthood, making it hard for children coming from such a family background to succeed in life. Consequently, these analysts must underscore the increasingly strong linkage between maternal education and maternal marital status as a “‘mechanism’ in the reproduction of inequality across generations . . . and a potential contributor to future inequality.”  

The authors of this new analysis probably share many of the views of the progressive commentators who have so loudly decried growing economic inequality in America. But their analysis finally makes it clear that hopes for reducing such inequality will remain dim unless America reverses the family changes that progressives themselves promoted. 

(Shelly Lundberg, Robert A. Pollak, and Jennna Stearns, “Family Inequality: Diverging Patterns in Marriage, Cohabitation, and Childbearing,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 30.2 [2016]: 79-102.)