Russell ShawMarriage and social class

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Among the benign myths that lie close to the hearts of many Americans is the belief that, in the end, social class differences don't count for all that much. It's the Horatio Alger story: hard work and perseverance will pay off for anyone who wants to get his or her slice of the American Dream.

Would that it were so, but the evidence says it isn't. Consider marriage and the family. When it comes to sharing in the advantages associated with marriage and two-parent family life, Americans are increasingly divided along the lines of social class.

Consider this from a new study:

"College-educated and more affluent Americans enjoy relatively strong and stable marriages and the economic and social benefits that flow from such marriages. By contrast, not just poor but also working-class Americans face rising rates of family instability, single parenthood, and life-long singleness."

The study, titled "The Marriage Divide," is the work of sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies, and was jointly published as a "research brief" by several Washington think tanks. Its thrust is summed up in its subtitle: "How and Why Working-Class Families are More Fragile Today."

Note that word "more." The point is that things have been getting worse. Half a century ago, Wilcox and Wang say, there was no significant difference in marriage and family matters between affluent and working-class Americans. The "vast majority" in both groups "got and stayed married, and most children lived in stable, two-parent families."

But since the 1960s, the authors report, the United States has witnessed "an emerging substantial marriage divide by class."

The present situation is reflected in numbers showing that the percentage of now-married adults ages 18-55 is 56% among middle- and upper-class Americans, 39% among the working class, and 26% among the poor. The figures for cohabitation are 5% among the middle and upper classes, 10 % among the working class, and 13% among the poor. 

To a great extent, the process that produced these numbers over the last 50 years was spurred by economic factors linked to the changeover from an industrial to a post-industrial economy, which made it harder for many poor and working-class men to find "stable, decent-paying" jobs. As one might expect, the problem was exacerbated by the Great Recession. 

But Wilcox and Wang insist that economic factors aren't the whole explanation. On the contrary, what has happened has a lot to do with changes in social attitudes that favor sexual permissiveness, individualism, a decline of family values, and a general fraying of what they call the "civic fabric" including a decline in membership in churches and other community groups. "Americans who regularly attend religious service are more likely to marry, have children in wedlock, avoid divorce, and enjoy higher-quality relationships."

Against this background, the authors conclude that the nation's leaders should act energetically to promote family values – still relatively strong among the middle and upper classes – among working class and poor Americans. Unfortunately, they don't say what those steps might be, although simply refraining from further encroachments on religious liberty to enforce secularist views comes readily to mind.

The alternative, they write, is "a world where middle- and upper-class Americans benefit from strong, stable families while everyone else faces increasingly fragile families, and where high rates of economic inequality and child poverty are locked in by a marriage divide that puts working-class and poor Americans – and their children – at a stark disadvantage."

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