They might spout liberal sentiments but it's the affluent who are reaping the benefits of marriage.
When I was growing up in the 1970s I knew a few hippie families in which the longhaired flower-children parents never married formally, the kids ran wild and the parents worked at strange professions like selling homemade jewelry at weekend craft fairs. Yet, truth be told, they embodied virtually all of the traditional values of marital fidelity, industriousness, faith and family to an amazing degree.
The tragedy of modern life is that the virtues that contribute to a happy life are increasingly limited by class and economics – certainly between whites and minority populations but also, as recent research has shown, among whites. It’s not that upscale whites are intrinsically more virtuous; it’s that the moral habits that give rise to a happy life are tied to stable families and larger cultural communities – things that increasingly exist only among the prosperous.
In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in a cultural as well as economic sense.
In a book published last year, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, the conservative sociologist Charles Murray argues that a cultural chasm now divides upper-class and blue collar whites.
While a liberal stereotype assigns “traditional values” to blue-collar rednecks in the South and Midwest, Murray argues that actually such values are more common in affluent, upper-class, liberal enclaves like Palo Alto, California, and McLean, Virginia. Marriage and church attendance, for example, are increasingly correlated with income, not race.
Murray produces reams of statistics to show that less than five percent of white, college-educated women have children outside of marriage while 40 percent of white women with only high school diplomas do – eight times more.
Other analysts agree.
In a study for the Brookings Institution, The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America, Andrew J. Cherlin and W. Bradford Wilcox argue that a sea change is happening to marriage among the poorer half of young people under age 34 – and it doesn’t bode well for the future.
“In the affluent neighborhoods where many college-educated Americans live, marriage is alive and well and stable families are the rule,” Cherlin and Wilcox point out. “Young Americans with college degrees, once thought to be a cultural vanguard, are creating a neotraditional style of family life: although they may cohabit with their partners, nearly all of them marry before having their first child. Furthermore, while most wives work outside the home, the divorce rate in this group has declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s.”
But the same cannot be said about the poorer half of young adults. For them, marriage is increasingly the exception, not the rule. “The nation’s retreat from marriage, which started in low-income communities in the 1960s and 1970s, has now moved into Middle America,” the authors conclude.
This seismic shift has dramatic, very real world consequences. According to a report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2012, “children born or raised outside of marriage are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems – including drug use, depression, attempted suicide and dropping out of high school – compared to children in intact, married families.”
The National Marriage Project research also supports the idea that cohabitation, even with children, is not the same thing as a vowed marriage. For one thing, despite high divorce rates, marriages last longer: cohabitating relationships are much less stable than married ones. “Cohabiting couples who have a child together are about twice as likely as married couples to break up before their child turns twelve,” the authors note.