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 th
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