Marriage and the Middle Class

Labor’s Love Lost – The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America

  • Andrew J. Cherlin
  • Russell Sage, 2014; 272 pages, $35.00

Andrew J. Cherlin, the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, has spent a career studying marriage and family in the United States. His work focuses on changes in the patterns of marriage and family formation. In his newest book, he brings his focus to the history of the working-class family and the monumental transformations that have occurred in the past several decades.

And according to Cherlin, the working-class family in 2014 is in tough shape. Marriage rates among the working class are at historic lows, with most working-class couples cohabiting, having children outside of marriage, and delaying marriage for the sake of economic stability. These changes have far-reaching consequences for the adults and children of the working class.

Cherlin’s work situates the flight from marriage and family in its historical context. While the nuclear family portrayed in shows like Leave it to Beaver did have a basis in reality in the 1950s and 1960s, the image of a breadwinning father and a homemaker mother was more often realized by the middle class.

For most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, working-class families relied on money earned by both parents. For women this income was most often earned within the home, either by doing piecework or taking on and caring for lodgers. Men’s work was a separate sphere. The ideal of the man as “breadwinner” predominated, forming a central part of a working-class man’s self-conception. Prior to the changes in the second half of the 20th century, men and women married first, generally young, then established a household with children.

Cherlin points to several reasons for the decline of this model. The post-war period saw dramatic changes in marriage. Some, such as the greater ease of divorce and the rise of the “companiate” ideal of marriage (in which husbands and wives were to be friends) were cultural. Others, such as the dislocations in the manufacturing sector brought on by changing technology and globalization, were economic. The end result was a working class, now redefined as adults with less than a college education, that had the lowest marriage rate in a century.

By this account working-class men are hit especially hard. Service sector and clerical jobs, traditionally held by women, are less prone to being shipped overseas. Men, whose identity had been centered on work, were less attractive as marriage partners now that they were unemployed. Working-class women still desire children, but often have them outside of marriage for lack of suitable husbands. The high levels of incarceration in the United States, particularly among minorities and the working class, adds to other causes of family fragmentation.

Marriage is now seen as the last step into adulthood, Cherlin notes, whereas a century ago it was the first. This is true for the middle class as well, with many couples cohabiting and establishing careers before they tie the knot. The distinction for the working class is that many do not believe they have enough economic security to take this last step, and so remain in cohabiting relationships (with the attendant high rates of dissolution).

Cherlin rejects what he takes to be the “culture only” explanation of declining working class family formation laid out by Charles Murray in his 2012 Coming Apart. Instead he holds that several factors, both cultural and economic, led to the decline of the working class. Unlike Murray, he does not place much weight on the role of the welfare state in disincentivizing marriage.

Cherlin begins and ends his work with a discussion of inequality. He opens with a chart depicting marriage rates mapped against periods of high and low equality. His last section discusses the famous French economist, Thomas Piketty, and his work Capital in the Twenty-First Century. For Cherlin income inequality is a chief causal factor in the gap in marriage between the working and middle class.

This conclusion introduces a strange note into the work. Correlation does not equal causation.[1] Many other factors likely contributed to the decline of the working-class family. Indeed, Cherlin spends a significant portion of his book discussing these causes. Further, while it is likely true that the steep decline in manufacturing jobs hit working-class male breadwinners especially hard, this effect is separate from the question of inequality. 

This distinction matters, as policies that aim at reducing inequality as a desired outcome likely will do little to improve the condition of the working class. Better job prospects for the working class, along with the identification and acquisition of the skills necessary for those jobs, will help. Taking all the money of the wealthiest Americans, throwing it into a pile and lighting a bonfire would be a speedy way to reduce inequality, but it would do nothing for the working class.

Cherlin’s policy prescriptions are dubious. The most unpromising is the oft-repeated call for pre-school education. The most frightening is that the U.S. entertain the social welfare (and slow growth) models of Europe. Youth unemployment in Spain, for example, was 55% last May. One can imagine that the impact on family formation in these countries is stark.[2]

Cherlin floats several ideas for programs to help working-class families stay together. However, as he himself notes, these programs are not always what working-class families need. One program, modeled after marriage counseling aimed at the middle class, did not actually meet the needs and real circumstances of working class families.

We should not be surprised that solutions are not readily forthcoming, as the causes are complex and multifaceted. Further, while the “losers” of globalization in the U.S. have often been the working class, globally this is not the case. Globalization has not been kind in Detroit, but it has in Guagdong. New factory jobs in China offer a way forward, and a welcome sense of normalcy, after the terrors and tribulations of Mao’s cultural revolution. A great many families, halfway across the globe, are better off for the changes that globalization has wrought.

Michael Tolhurst is a non-profit professional in North Virginia. He holds M.A. degrees in philosophy and political science from Northern Illinois University.

  • [1]     There is a recent study that examines and calls into question Piketty’s empirical work on inequality. See Phillip W. Magness and Robert P. Murphy “Challenging the Empirical Contribution of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century,” forthcoming in Journal of Private Enterprise [spring 2015].
  • [2]     See