When she was a single mom raising her son in Orange County, Calif., Katherine Romero always found ways to get dinner on the table despite a tight budget: ramen noodles (eight packages for $1), store brands only and low-cost meats such as a single chicken breast divided between the two of them. “We ate a lot of pasta and soup,” Romero remembers.
Now grown, Romero’s 23-year-old son tends to avoid canned soups but otherwise seems well-served by his upbringing. He recently earned two bachelor’s degrees, is pursuing a career in federal law enforcement and plans to marry his longtime girlfriend.
“It’s kind of a storybook ending,” says Romero, who herself has remained single since she became a mother at 22. Back then, she remembers feeling alone — that no one else was in her situation. But over the years she has connected with other never-married mothers. One friend had a child with her boyfriend before the two broke up; another used in vitro fertilization to have a baby she planned to raise alone.
While the circumstances of the three women differ, what they all have in common is that their situations are increasingly common. Four out of 10 births in the U.S. occur outside marriage, and while moralists have viewed this pattern as an indicator of slipping social standards, the trend is better understood as a barometer of economic disparity.
Marriage in retreat
Single motherhood and a decline in marriage were trends long identified with African-Americans. Sen. Pat Moynihan warned, infamously, about increasing numbers of black children born outside wedlock in 1965, and the subject returned to center stage some 30 years later in the lead-up to welfare reform, with public discourse focused on demonizing black families and fathers in particular.
But since Moynihan’s era the same trends have taken hold across American society, with the percentage of births to unmarried women currently at 40 percent, up from 5.3 percent in 1960. Hispanics and Asians, along with blacks and whites, have also seen an increase in births outside marriage from 2002-2006.
Meanwhile, the decline in marriage, for decades a pattern in black America, has come to include more people across all groups. For example, some 84 percent of U.S.-born people between 30 and 44 were married in 1970; by 2007, that figure had fallen to 60 percent.
Some obvious social forces have fueled the trend that sociologists call “the retreat from marriage,” starting with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But the economy’s role has been greatly under-appreciated despite some rather obvious connections. Most notably, dwindling job prospects in unskilled labor have undercut working-class men’s ability to support a family, making them less marriageable in the eyes of some potential partners.
So it’s not surprising that the retreat from marriage is more concentrated among economically vulnerable whites, who now reflect some of the same family patterns detected earlier among African-Americans.
“Lower-income white family formation is starting to look like black family formation of 20 years ago,” said Paula England, Stanford University professor and member of the Council on Contemporary Families.
Authors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, authors of Red Families v. Blue Families, also note a shift.
“Non-marital childbearing, which was once thought of as a marker of race, has become more thoroughly identified with class,” they wrote in their book. “The economic forces that remade African-American communities, particularly in the rustbelt inner cities during the ‘60s and ‘70s, now also affect working-class whites,” according to Cahn and Carbone.
Among industrial nations, non-marital birth rates vary. Iceland claims the highest rate of births to unmarried women, at 66 percent, while Japan has the lowest at 2 percent. Germany, Spain, Canada, and Italy all had lower percentages of births to unmarried women than the U.S.
“Bachelors” are walking down the aisle
One group of Americans is not experiencing a decline in marriage or marital births. People with bachelor’s degrees, in fact, are more likely to delay birth until after marriage and divorce less, and they are now more likely to marry than their less-educated counterparts.
“The college-educated part of America is living the American dream — with happy, stable, two-parent families,” according to a 2009 report called “State of Our Unions” by the National Marriage Project. But for the non college-educated, by contrast, “Marriage rates are continuing to decline, and the percentage of out-of-wedlock births is rising.”
According to sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins, a college degree — and not race — is increasingly the most important factor connected with rate of marriage and marital birth.
“I think college grads are the winners in the new global economy,” said Cherlin. “People who can see a secure future for themselves are content to wait to have children. People who can’t see a secure future are less content to wait.”
Interestingly, lack of degree was not always accompanied by marital decline, as shown in research by Betsey Stevenson of the University of Pennsylvania and the Council on Contemporary Families. Her research shows that in 1950, a white female college graduate had less chance of marrying than a high school dropout. The inverse is now true.
Why the cold feet? Coupledom offers some immediate practical payoffs to parents who might otherwise go it alone — one mortgage payment rather than two, in an obvious example. A marital partnership offers even more rewards in terms of inheritance, taxes (in some cases), health insurance benefits and social status.
Many experts, like Professor Paula England at Stanford, believe one deterrent to matrimony, though not to procreation, is the popular notion that marriage can’t take place before economic success has been achieved.
“It used to be that people had the idea that a young couple gets married, lives in an apartment, struggles to buy a house. Now the feeling is you should have your house first,” England said. “When people think they need to have achieved a stable economic position before getting married, then there’s an economic constraint on getting married.”
This ethic of waiting may explain why college-educated young adults — anticipating a more prosperous future — are more likely to marry than their degree-lacking counterparts, and why African-Americans, historically lacking access to economic opportunities, turned away from marriage earlier on.
Another factor in the marriage equation, at least for African-Americans, is the perception of marriage as a white institution, the subject of an article by Joy Jones in the Washington Post in 2006. In the piece, Jones discusses the discovery she made while teaching a classroom of African-American sixth-graders, who told her they cared about good parenting and devoted fatherhood but not about the institution of marriage. They told her that, “Marriage is for white people.”
The students may have hit on something. Divorce rates are the most unfavorable for African-Americans, with the probability of a black woman’s first marriage remaining intact for 10 years at 51 percent while 64 percent for white women and 68 percent for Hispanic women.
Marriage leads to money, or vice versa?
A recent study by the Pew Research Center made the point that college-educated people who marry each other and stay together reap unquestionable financial rewards, further distancing themselves from their non-degreed counterparts:
According to “Women, Men and the New Economics of Marriage”: “Americans who already have the largest incomes and who have had the largest gains in earnings since 1970 — college graduates — have fortified their financial advantage over less educated Americans because of their greater tendency to be married.”
In other words, marriage is yet another dividing line between the haves, who still adhere to the conventional sequence of love-marriage-baby , and the have-nots, who find the traditional path to family formation – like many middle-class aspirations – further out of reach.
- Marriage on the Decline: Bad Economy Turns More and More People Off of Matrimony (alternet.org)
- Is marriage becoming obsolete? (cnn.com)
- Marriage in U.S. Obsolete Per TIME and Pew Research Survey (brainz.org)
- The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families (pewresearch.org)