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PORTSIDE  May 2011, Week 5

PORTSIDE May 2011, Week 5

Subject:

Changing Marriage Patterns Reflect Economics and Class

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Date:

Mon, 30 May 2011 01:26:04 -0400

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Changing Marriage Patterns Reflect Economics and Class
by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn
New Deal 2.0
05/20/2011 
http://www.newdeal20.org/2011/05/20/changing-marriages-patterns-reflect-economics-and-class-45726/

Upper classes are marrying late, while poorer women are
deciding that they're better off single.

New research shows that women are getting married at
later ages - and that the divorce rate is going down.
The results reflect some good news - later marriages are
more likely to last. Most importantly, however, these
figures correlate with widespread changes in the
American family.

First, the decrease in the divorce rate does at least in
part reflect later marriages. Teen marriages have always
been risky and most studies suggest that the increase in
maturity from the teen years to the early twenties bodes
well for the stability of relationships. Delay from the
early twenties to the late twenties and thirties,
however, is more controversial. While these later
marriages are also more likely to last, economist
Stephane Mechoulan found that the increase in the age of
marriage in itself accounts for only a small part of the
falling divorce rates. Instead, they reflect the
increasing tendency of the well-off to marry similarly
well-off partners and those marriages are more likely to
last at any age.

Second, the overall statistics hide the class-based
dynamics at the core of the shift. Historically, college
educated women were less likely to marry than high
school graduates. Today, male and female college
graduates have become substantially more likely to marry
(and stay married). At the same time, marriage has
effectively disappeared from the poorest communities. In
the middle, pregnant teens like Bristol Palin have
become much less likely to marry the fathers of their
children. It is hardly surprising therefore that overall
divorce rates have fallen as the highest divorce risks
(pregnant teens among them) have become much less likely
to marry.

Third, the later age of marriage for college graduates
does suggest a new middle class strategy: invest in
women's education and earning capacity as well as men's,
push back the age of marriage and childbearing from the
low ages of the anomalous fifties, and reap the benefits
of two incomes. This strategy, of course, began in the
sixties and seventies and produced much more independent
women. Today, it also reflects a new marriage strategy.
The only portion of the American population
substantially better off than a generation ago are high
income men, and it easier to tell who will be successful
(think of those Wall St. bonuses) and who will not at
thirty than at twenty. At the same time, for less
spectacularly successful men, two substantial incomes
are essential for middle class life. Today, becoming
established means not only college graduation and
graduate school, but the right internships, entry level
jobs, and often repeated moves between positions, cities
and sometimes career paths. These investments pay off in
terms of a stable investment for family life, but they
are rarely in place before the thirties and earlier
marriage and childbearing often makes them harder to
establish. As the economy becomes more perilous, the
risks of early marriage increase.

Fourth, with the disappearance of relatively stable and
high paying manufacturing jobs, working class women may
have greater opportunities than working class men and
they have also become pickier about marriage as a
result. Women have become more likely to graduate from
high school and college and the jobs they choose -
teaching, health care, retail sales, administration -
tend to be more stable than those available to men.
Construction workers, for example, often earn more than
Walmart employees, but they are also more likely to be
laid off. Studies further show that while unemployed
women spend more time on the home and the children,
unemployed men spend more time moping, drinking,
watching TV, and lashing out at those around them. The
new data confirms that the Great Recession has slowed
marriage rates and earlier studies show that financial
stress greatly increases the divorce rates of young and
working class couples with the most traditional
attitudes toward gender roles. In today's economy, these
couples have become less likely to marry.

Fifth, a delay in marriage and a decrease in divorce
might be a good thing, but only if it also produces a
drop in non-marital births. For the middle class, later
marriage continues to mean later childbearing, and later
childrearing tends to lower overall fertility. Women's
workforce participation increases the opportunity cost
(and the family tensions) of having more children. The
combination of the suburbs, with their dependence on the
automobile, and the disappearance of stay-at-home moms
dismantled the community networks that had supervised
children, placing more emphasis on the role of
individual parents. Modern studies of family time
indicate that while mothers today spend substantially
less time on housework than they did a half century ago,
they spend as much time with their children and their
husband spend more. Today's "helicopter" parents invest
enormous amounts of time overseeing homework, coaching
sports teams, escorting their children to after school
activities, and addressing their emotional needs.

Working class women, however, have become more likely to
have children without marrying. If the father is
chronically unemployed, uncommitted to the relationship,
immature or simply unreliable, young mothers may decide
that they are better off on their own. It is hard to
assess the impact of falling marriage rates therefor
without examining the nature of childbearing. The
changes of the last quarter century indicate that
marriage is increasingly becoming a marker of class -
the delayed marriages of the middle class produce
steadily lower divorce rates, very few non-marital
births, and substantial resources to invest in a falling
number of children. For the rest of the country, the
statistics may simply confirm a greater move away from
marriage altogether.

June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of
Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of
Missouri-Kansas City.

Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor
of Law at George Washington University Law School. She
is the author of numerous books and law review articles
on gender and family law.

Cahn and Carbone are the co-authors of Red Families v.
Blue Families.

___________________________________________

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on the left that will help them to interpret the world
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