The (Non)Marrying Middle

Marriage Markets – How Inequality is Remaking the American Family

  • June Carbone and Naomi Cahn
  • Oxford University Press, 2014; 272 pages, $29.95

Across America, a new marker of social class is emerging. That marker differentiates the rich from the poor, the educated from the high-school dropouts. It separates those who drive Bentleys and vacation in Italian wine country from those who drive used Chevrolets and never have the ability to vacation. 

That marker, argue June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, is marriage. 

Carbone and Cahn (also coauthors of the 2010 Red Families vs. Blue Families) point out that the much-touted statistic that the divorce rate has (finally) dropped hides an ugly truth: for the wealthiest, divorce has indeed gone down, and drastically so. But for the poor, marriages are failing to form altogether. Write Carbone and Cahn, “A generation or two ago, the family patterns of the middle looked much more like those of the top third of American society; today, they increasingly resemble the patterns of the bottom third.”

It is a trend noted elsewhere. In decades past, it was unremarkable for a college-graduate male to marry his high-school sweetheart, who held only a high-school diploma. Today, the elite are increasingly likely to marry the elite, while marriage in the lower classes continues to die. Many sociologists, claim Carbone and Cahn, mistakenly target welfare programs and general morality for this decline. Such sociologists believe that welfare has midde- and lower-class men lazy (making them poor prospects for marriage), and that if women would only wise up and limit access to sex, men would get their act together.

The authors instead insist that for the middle class, marriage is becoming more undesirable, and that economics play a huge role. To make their point, the authors use the fictional “Amy and Tyler” and “Lily and Carl.” Amy and Tyler, both law students, have delayed marriage and, with it, child-bearing, until they are out of law school and financially secure. Tyler is crazy about Amy, and Amy likes him well enough, but she also knows that in marrying Tyler, she is choosing someone who can pull his own weight. Like her, he contributes to the family income, and he can be trusted to care for any children the couple has. Amy chose Tyler, but she had many good options at the top. 

Lily, on the other hand, met Carl and became pregnant shortly thereafter. Unlike Tyler, Carl is something less than a good catch. He was a fun date, but he can’t manage to keep a job and relies on Lily financially. “For Lily,” write the authors, “the baby’s needs come first, and marriage to Carl is a threat, rather than an asset, in those efforts.”

Why such a difference between Carl and Tyler? The authors highlight that a man like Carl with limited education can achieve little in terms of employment these days. In the glory years of the early-mid twentieth century, an industrial economy guaranteed a job to anyone who could graduate high school and keep his act together. These jobs paid a good living wage, and could support a stay-at-home mother with children. But in the new service economy, such jobs are scarce, and there is little place for the Tylers of the world to go in search of work. 

The economic recession of the last decade has done even more to separate the haves from the have-nots. Those showing the most gains in salary, the authors write, are the tiny percentage at the very top of the financial ladder, while the rest of the country continues to get a little bit poorer every year.

In the first three sections of the book, the authors discuss how we arrived at this situation in the first place. They focus on marriage as a product of market forces, subject to the laws of supply and demand. Today, a woman’s chances of marrying well depend on her ability to graduate college, get a decent career, and avoid unwed childbearing. The new model of marriage is one in which high-earning men are more interested in wives who can contribute equally than in wives who manage the domestic sphere well. For these couples, marriage is a finely tuned dance of shared responsibilities, enabled by the financial ability to hire nannies and tutors, and the job flexibility to leave work a little early for Jimmy’s basketball game.

For those in the middle, however, life has become harder. People like Lily and Carl don’t have much chance of landing the type of job that will pay them well enough to afford “quality childcare” (the authors’ words), much less swim and dance lessons. And while many experts believe that the worth of marriage has decreased in the estimation of most of the middle class, Carbone and Cahn claim that the middle actually values marriage as much as the upper, so much so that they are warier of entering the institution in the first place. They want to be economically and emotionally ready but doubt they will ever arrive at that point. In the meantime women in the middle see little reason to postpone childbirth. Nonmarital sex and cohabitation are both common, but the use of effective contraception less so than in the upper class. 

What is the solution?

Carbone and Cahn spend a quarter of their book outlining strategies to remedy some of this glaring class divide. Their focus is exhaustive. Some proposals are interesting; all depend heavily on government subsidies.

The first strategy is to “Rebuild the Middle Class—and Strengthen the Family—through Employment.” One perhaps useful point here is that for many companies, compensation is tied more to short-term success than to long-term company health and growth, encouraging mismanagement in the name of making a quick buck. The authors would reform this structure. Another proposal, less convincing, is to raise the minimum wage.

The authors also spend a significant time on “rebuilding support for children” from birth through early adulthood. Again, the authors’ solutions require heavy government pay-outs. Carbone and Cahn advocate for more subsidized daycare, a transformed school week that closely resembles parents’ work schedules, and increased efforts at getting lower-income high-school graduates to apply to more selective colleges.

There is also a rather creepy section here on the sexual practices of the lower and middle classes, with the emphasis on getting more women on the pill and providing more free abortions. Rather than trying to get women to remain abstinent, which they believe is unrealistic and ill-advised, Carbone and Cahn argue that “Both using the pill and managing sex require support.” They continue: 

“It takes different kinds of motivation and discipline to remain abstinent than to use the pill, and extending such policies across the class divide is improbable. So anti-abortion efforts, especially when coupled with opposition to public subsidization of contraception, amounts to class warfare. They take away an important tool that allows poorer women to avoid destructive teen births.”

Poor women have neither the “motivation” nor the “discipline” to remain abstinent. Such an argument bears a rather uncanny resemblance to some of the eugenics movements of the earlier part of the last century, movements which aimed to control the fertility of the lower classes, albeit Carbone and Cahn have the more noble intention of allowing poor women “to avoid destructive teen births.”

In all of this, the authors’ presumption seems to be that there is no reason for trying to increase marriage among the lower classes. Marriage is an archaic institution, and so Carbone and Cahn instead refocus on massive government expenditures to make up for the glaring hole that it leaves behind, particularly as it has to do with the raising of children. In order to level the playing field for both the children of the poor and the children of the wealthy, we must spend billions on “quality” childcare (which is never as good as a stay-at-home parent); increased contraception (with consequent negative health and emotional effects for women); and a broadened understanding of the “family” to accommodate for all family forms, be they governed by one, two, or three parents of whatever gender (in spite of decades of research demonstrating that the two-parent, married family form is the best for children across all measures). 

None of these proposals will make up for the fact that marriage simply is the best thing for men, women, and children. Married men and women are healthier and happier, and actually see an income increase upon nuptials; their children are more likely to succeed academically, to be happy, remain healthy, avoid recreational drugs and alcohol, and form successful marriages of their own. Carbone and Cahn would undoubtedly reply that all of this is so because we live in a society which makes it so. If we were more open and accepting of all family forms, such discrepancies would eventually disappear. This has not yet proven true in those areas where marriage has steeply declined (the Nordic countries, for example), and at this point, we have no basis on which to believe such a claim.

In the end, the authors’ suggestions for increased payouts to make up for the lost benefits of marriage seem a bit classist. The authors—themselves faculty at prestigious institutions, and in every way members of the elite class they describe—see no point in trying to make the lower classes take on some of the productive behaviors that they themselves have adopted. While some of their policy suggestions are useful and long overdue, the authors’ refusal to acknowledge the importance of marriage will likely only continue to prop up a system that is indeed glaringly unequal. 

Nicole M. King is Managing Editor of The Family in America.