Children raised in intact, married homes are more likely to avoid poverty, prison and teen pregnancy. They have better economic upward mobility than children raised by a single parent. There is less risk of downward mobility. Child poverty would be about 20% lower if marriage rates had remained as high as in the 1970s, Wilcox said.
Children of cohabiting couples face worse outcomes than children raised by single parents in areas like substance abuse, high school graduation rates, and psychological well-being. They face a higher risk of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Cohabitation features less adult commitment, less trust, and less fidelity than married parents and suffers more family instability.
Divorce is one of the practices that leads to cohabitation, said Wilcox.
The decline in religious attendance among working class Americans is far more severe than among upper middle-class or college-educated Americans.
"The story here is in part an economic story: when people feel they can't maintain a decent middle class lifestyle economically, they're less likely to go to church," Wilcox told CNA. "They're more likely to feel they don't belong in a church community."
The significant shift in sexual mores, family stability, and non-marital childbearing has affected working class Americans "especially hard" and their lifestyle doesn't fit a church ideal, Wilcox suggested.
"If you're divorced, if you're cohabiting, if you're a single mother or a non-essential father, the church can seem like an off-putting place for you," he said.
Clergy tend to be college-educated and have a natural affinity with some instead of others. Preaching, teaching and ministry has a middle-class or upper middle-class gloss. Wilcox pointed to young adult ministries among Catholics and Evangelicals that secure significant resources to serve those in college, but lack resources for non-college track young adults.
He suggested that preaching geared toward the upper middle class tends toward the "therapeutic and comforting," whereas "clearer and bolder" preaching and teaching might appeal more to the working class.
The rise of quality, inexpensive entertainment also means it is more likely for people to stay home from worship services, regardless of beliefs.
One possible reason for the changes in class-segmented opinions and behaviors in the past 50 years is upward or downward mobility based on success or failure to form families. Those who follow a "success sequence" could have risen in economic class and education level.
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"Part of the story is that in the 1970s, working-class Americans were more heterogeneous in terms of religion, work, and family orientation, whereas today, working-class and poor Americans, if they're native-born, tend to be less religious, more erratic in family life, and more distant from community and civic institutions," said Wilcox.
To help bridge this family divide, it is important to cultivate "friendship and civic ties across class lines, and for our churches and civic institutions to do more to integrate people across class lines."
"Unless poor and working class people have more access to strong and stable models of family life and access to social networks that middle class folks have in terms of job opportunities and the like, we're not going to address very successfully this marriage divide in America," he said.
Other civic institutions, like youth athletic leagues, tend to cater to the middle or upper middle class, who provide significant financial support for their children's sports.
"We should challenge our local athletic non-profits and civic trusts to do more to make sure they are economically integrated," Wilcox suggested.
Public policy also has "marriage penalties" that hinder people at the upper limits of eligibility for welfare, child care subsidies, and tax credits.