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The Cost of Marriage?

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  February 21, 2012 09:51 AM

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I have been fascinated by the coverage of Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, in which he notes that marriage has, increasingly, become the domain of the upper class.

In 1960, for example, 88% of those in the top fifth of income earners were married. By 2010, the percentage was nearly identical: 83%.

Among those in the working class, though, the numbers fell off a cliff. In 1960, 83% of those in the bottom 30% of income earners were married; by 2010, only 48% were.

In many ways, this is an astounding transformation, a radical shift that somehow did not
touch those who buy their food at Whole Foods, their sheets at Garnet Hill, and their overstuffed love seats at Pottery Barn.

But why?

Murray attributes the problem to several factors: a reduction in available jobs for those with high school educations, a decline in religiosity, and a disappearing stigma against out-of-wedlock births and divorce, among others.

It’s certainly true that single parents are now the norm in many American cities and towns. Fifty years ago, fewer than 10% of working-class women had children outside marriage. Now we’re about 50%.

“It was like living with another kid,” 27-year-old Amber Strader explained to The New York Times. “...I’d like to do it, but I just don’t see it happening right now. Most of my friends say it’s just a piece of paper, and it doesn’t work out anyway.”

The comment served to buttress statistics showing that unmarried women under 30 now have more children than married women under 30, and educational level appears to be a major factor.

Among white women under 30, only 8% of those with a college degree have children out of wedlock. For those who have never attended college, more than half of children - 51% - are now born to unmarried mothers.

To me, this feels like fascinating stuff, and I’ll follow up in a subsequent column. But first I’d like to hear your view: what has happened here? What do you see around you?

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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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