We are both happily married, law professors, and have gone down the same path. We graduated from college, established our professions, got married, had kids. Our children and most of our friends followed the same pattern. Our family background may be typical of the college-educated professionals around us, but not typical of the wider American public.
In the middle of the 20th century, during a period of wider prosperity, almost everyone in the United States got married. There were some differences. African American women were slightly more likely to marry at a younger age than white women, and college graduates were slightly less likely to marry than high school graduates. But the similarities between the class lines were striking. Age at marriage fell in the post-World War II generation across the spectrum. For all Americans, divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births were low, children were overwhelmingly raised in families with two parents, and white and working-class couples alike wanted three or four children.
Like marriage age, divorce rates, and ideal family size, family law became increasingly nationalized in the post-war decades. The U.S. Supreme Court pressed states to modernize their treatment of unmarried fathers, women were given more equal rights, and in 1970, backed by President Richard Nixon, the U.S. Congress voted bipartisanly to fund access to contraceptives. Throughout the United States, family life had a certain sequence. Everything has changed since the 1990s. Married Americans still reported levels of marriage satisfaction in line with previous generations, but were less likely to get married. The advent of no-fault divorce led to an increase in divorce rates in the 1970s and 80s, but by the 1990s, the divorce rate seemed to have stabilized. At the same time, extramarital births were on the rise. In many comments, single motherhood is interpreted as the wrong choice of people. When it came to African American women, the discussion often echoed Moynihan's report The Negro Family: A Case for National Action (1965), which dealt with the "confusion of pathology" and the "degradation of the black family." as a serious obstacle to political and economic equality. Now the same patterns are increasingly characteristic of white families.
These general trends in the American family — stable marital satisfaction, stabilizing divorce rates, rising extramarital births — have stymied simple understanding. But that's because they hide deeper changes, that is, how growing inequality is pushing American families in different directions.
In a sense, the "American family" no longer exists. Economic status is now more important than common citizenship in shaping family structure and choice. Divorce rates, for example, have only cumulatively stabilized. For college graduates, it has plummeted to mid-1960s levels before no-fault divorce, while for everyone else it continues to rise. In 1992, then-U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle sparked a debate by criticizing television sitcom character Murphy Brown of Candice Bergen for giving birth to a child without a husband. Demographically, Quayle's criticism was inappropriate. Professional women like Murphy Brown weren't the leaders in single parenting: between 1980 and 2006, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among white college graduates barely changed.
Apparently, stable indicators of marital satisfaction also paint a misleading picture. In fact, there are different models between the rich and the struggling. In 1980, financially struggling couples reported less happy marriages than financially secure ones, but the differences were relatively small. By 2000, the differences had increased substantially. Those in financial distress had much less happy marriages, while the quality of marriage in the economically successful group improved. The real change in these 20 years has been the disappearance of the middle, good enough marriages that have gone through bad times. What happened?
In our families, when our children were in their early 20s, weddings from California to Maine filled their summer travels. Their well-educated and mostly liberal friends took marriage seriously. But when we spoke to working-class women in rural Kansas during our research, we heard a different story. A woman we know, a devout Christian, unmarried and pregnant, bristled when we asked about the father of her child. She didn't want him to have anything to do with her or the baby. In The End of Men: The Rise of Women (2012), journalist Hanna Rosin describes a Virginia woman who finds herself in a similar situation.
activities. She explained that marrying her child's father meant "one less granola bar" for her and her two-year-old.
This growing rift in the American family may cause more divisions than wars in the country. For nearly two decades, what American families should look like has been a battleground in the country's increasingly polarized political life. Conservatives blamed Hollywood, liberals, and cultural decline. Libertarian Charles Murray first placed the blame on welfare in his book Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 (1984), but later shifted the blame to the one percent: if only the new capitalist elite would come out of their gated communities to show their a moral example of the degenerates of the working class, the correct family order can be restored.
In The Problem of Marriage: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families (2002), sociologist James K. Wilson attributed the decline of marriage to two causes: the long and slow emancipation of women that began during the Enlightenment, and the erosion of "family authority". marriage": that is, the moral imperatives that a woman must marry before having a child, and that a successful man must support his aging wife, and not change her to a new model. Wilson called these forces "our culture".
Christian conservatives tend to agree with the cultural viewpoint, arguing that the loss of sexual restrictions destroys the sacred bonds between marriage, sexuality, and childbearing: they recommend banning abortion and limiting access to contraceptives and sex education as remedies against this moral decline.
the only women whose marriage rates have not declined are the 10 percent of women with the highest incomes.
Wilson was right that "the long and slow emancipation of women" increased their independence. Women no longer need to get married or stay married to raise children. We think it's good. Acceptance of no-fault divorce has helped achieve a 30 percent reduction in domestic violence and a significant reduction in suicide rates among women. Divorce without guilt made it much easier for women to leave abusive husbands. Or, for that matter, changing the unwanted life of a suburban housewife, as inspired by Betty Friedan in The Womanly Enigma (1963). But these factors do not explain why the marriages and families of the elite are so different from the marriages and families of the average American.
If Wilson were right that marriage has declined because of women's independence or the values of the secular left, we might expect well-educated professional women to be trendsetters away from marriage. But it's not. In contrast, the only women whose marriage rates have not declined are the 10 percent of women with the highest incomes. These are the most independent women. On the contrary, marriage has all but disappeared for women who cannot realistically support a child unaided. The decline of religious values also does not provide a convincing explanation for these trends. While couples in a religious community (such as Mormons in Utah) have marriages that last somewhat longer than couples who don't attend church at all (or couples who attend different churches), religious communities have higher divorce rates. than in secular communities.
Ever since the 1965 Moynihan Report noted the decline of marriage in the African American community, progressives have argued that the real problem is the lack of work, especially for workers. Today's conservatives increasingly agree that this is part of the problem. Even Murray, in his desire to call the working class "loafers," tirelessly documents the growing gap in working hours between white and blue collar workers. Social conservatives began to regularly include attention to employment as part of any realistic marriage promotion program. Conservatives, however, continue to insist that the decline in marriage rates applies to both working and unemployed working-class men, and that there must be something cultural at work besides economic factors. Can they be right?
For at least one generation, a lively and controversial debate about marriage has been conducted as if economic and cultural change were two independent, even mutually exclusive, causes. But our book Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Changing the American Family (2014) shows that cultural and economic factors are deeply interdependent. In fact, growing inequality in the United States is fostering diverse cultures of marriage. Family formation is a process in which various factors reinforce each other, sometimes with ironic effect. Consider, for example, the impact of the criminal justice system on society. James K. Wilson may have written about marriage but is best known for his "broken windows theory" which advocated arrests for minor offenses.
Wilson believes that ridding a community of even petty offenders leads to more law-abiding citizens on the streets, which in turn deters crime. Wilson believed that law enforcement, like higher marriage rates, was necessary to create stronger, healthier communities. In this view, lower crime rates and higher marriage rates are classic cases where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is assumed that more marriages, like fewer broken windows, should be better for society as a whole than any number of happy couples that marriage produces.
However, evidence has become compelling that the increase in incarceration for minor offenses disproportionately affects minority communities and has a large impact on family stability, an impact that goes far beyond the understandably lower marriage rates among those in prison. Increasing attention to petty crime catalyzes changes that affect the norms of relationships throughout the community, and not in the direction of increasing the number of marriages. Understanding these dynamics gives us some clues about what might be going on with the family as a whole.
The immediate consequence of the increase in the number of prisoners is, of course, that there are fewer men in the community. In terms of simple arithmetic, fewer women will be able to marry. But the effect goes beyond that. As for women, men who face arrest for everything from charges of crossing the street in the wrong way to possession of marijuana and murder are less reliable. As the number of testimonials grows, they become less fit to work, more likely to be further arrested, and more likely to turn to questionable associates in search of income. Women, in turn, in many things begin to rely more on themselves. Research confirms, for example, that more men in prison lead to more women in education and employment.
Instead of lowering their standards, women are more likely to be disappointed in men.
Broken windows advocates argue that men simply need to become more law-abiding. Perhaps some do, but even law-abiding men in these communities do not focus on marriage; instead, they are also less likely to marry. Why? In their clever book Too Many Women?: The Sex Ratio Question (1983), sociologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord explained that changing the sex ratio—the number of men and women in a community—changes the behavior of the entire group. When there are more men than women, men compete for women. They become more inclined towards marriage because otherwise they may stay out of the relationship altogether. To do this, they invest more in what attracts women: they work harder, they become more faithful, they can become more law-abiding. Women have to choose. Some will prefer higher paid men; others may prefer men who are better behaved, funny, witty, or considerate. These traits would then define the norms in the community.
However, when there are more women than men in a community, something completely different happens. As a group, women do not compete more strongly for men. Men also don't go after women of higher status, at least not if that means women can outshine them. Instead, men work less hard, become less loyal, and find that they don't need to treat women as well to be able to even find a temporary partner. Instead of lowering their standards, women respond by being more likely to be disappointed in men. They may sleep with them (after all, they need them to have children), but they are more invested in themselves, their own income prospects, and their own relatives. In short, they make exactly the same decisions as women in communities affected by mass incarceration policies.
Guttentag and Secord initially tested their theory by comparing ancient Athens and Sparta. They argued that Sparta, the militaristic Greek province of the ancient world, practiced infanticide on male infants who appeared weak at birth and took the boys to wars and military service, further reducing their ranks. As a result, they argued, the women of Sparta had a reputation for being more liberated, sexually adventurous, and witty than women in Athens or the rest of the ancient world.
Were Guttentag and Secord right? Although historians have questioned their description of Athens and Sparta, sociologists have since conducted cross-cultural studies supporting their broader thesis. They generally find that communities with more males than
women are more marriage-oriented, have more productive men, and are more invested in their children. On the contrary, where there are more women than men, men seem to prefer to play on the field, and women's standards of acceptable match are raised. As women outnumber men and masculine behavior (from a woman's point of view) becomes less attractive, women become more choosy: they rely more on themselves and less on marriage. The marriage rate is declining not only among women, but also among men.
Tego's account of the effects of sex ratio had a huge impact on the social sciences. Some economists describe it as the economic theory of supply and demand, which states that as the relative number of men and women changes, so does the "price" of marriage. But as sociologists have realized, it makes more sense as a story of cultural change. As the relative number of men and women in a given community changes, so do the norms of relationships. The more men there are, the greater the role in determining the conditions of a relationship is played by women's preferences for a reliable and faithful man. The more women there are, the greater the influence of men's preference for multiple non-committal partners in establishing community norms. These factors not only affect the behavior of individuals, but actually change the expectations and values of the entire group.
In our study of marriage markets, we wondered if such factors could change the norms that move in opposite directions for different economic groups. Is it possible that greater inequality has changed the way men and women fit together, putting more men in some marriage markets and more women in others? At least theoretically, this could explain marriage norms that change in opposite directions for different classes. One big obstacle stands in the way of such a theory: the absolute number of men and women in most communities does not differ much. However, as we soon realized, the absolute number does not matter. Instead, the number of men and women willing to marry each other is the deciding factor. The “marriage market”, in our concept, depends on who is free and who is worth marrying. This case was worth investigating.
In 1960, when almost all women had to become housewives if their husbands could support them, men didn't care much about women's income: youth, attractiveness, and household skills mattered much more. Indeed, the highest paid women in that era were among those who married the least. Too much female success could alienate a marriage-oriented man. Today, as we mentioned earlier, the women who earn the most money are seeing the greatest increase in their marriage prospects. Evolutionary psychologists love to study what men and women find attractive about each other, and these factors change over time. Perhaps the biggest change in the past half century has been that men have become more concerned about how much money a woman makes.
At the same time, women have always cared about men's incomes, and today they seem to care even more. In studies psychologists do with college students in the lab, women rate carefully crafted images of men as more attractive when the man is described as making more money. In the real world, it's hard to test such preferences so precisely, but women seem pretty clear on one thing: A large number, almost 80%, report that they won't marry a man without a stable job. If the number of jobs for men decreases in a given community, then the number of men women are willing to marry also decreases. Men also seem to prefer women with a job, but their insistence on a partner with a stable job is not as strong.
there are twice as many women who marry than men who marry in many urban communities.
The idea that the decline in employment of blue-collar men affects marriage rates has a long pedigree. Harvard sociologist Bill Wilson, influenced by the thesis of Guttentag and Secord, argued in the 1990s that much of the racial variation in marriage rates could be explained by sex ratios. There are minor differences in the sex ratio: compared to whites, African Americans have fewer boys, and African American males die before adulthood more often than females. But significantly more African American men than whites (or African American women) are in prison and thus not present in society. In poor urban areas, the percentages are significant. More black men marry outside of the race than black women, further reducing their numbers. And in poor African-American communities, a high percentage of men have only casual jobs.
Wilson's thesis was controversial.
Sociologist Christopher Jencks made the most significant criticism. Noting that the marriage rate among working men had declined almost to the same extent as among the unemployed, he suggested that changes in employment could not explain the decline in marriages. What Jencks overlooked, however, was that this is exactly what gender ratio theory predicted: when there are more women than men, marriage rates fall not only among unemployed men, but across the group.
Today, sex ratio theory is an important component of most explanations for why marriage has disappeared in many communities. If there is a dispute, it is likely to be about which factors are most important. Some scholars look at the total number of men and women. Look more at employment. In 1960, at the height of the baby boom, when marriages and birth rates skyrocketed, there were 139 working men for every 100 unmarried women. Today there are 91. The Fragile Families Project, run by Princeton and Columbia Universities and studying single mothers, has found that once researchers control for sex ratios, most of the racial differences in marriage disappear. The sex ratio affects not only the number of marriages in the studied groups, but also the quality of extramarital relationships. Women tend to be happier with their current partner when the number of available men in the community increases.
These studies show that the way to change the sex ratio in families is to change the nature of marriage "markets" in general. As the likelihood of a woman finding the “right” man decreases, women in general begin to expect less from men. And although men enjoy the opportunity to enter into more relationships, they respond to women's greater suspicions by becoming even less ready to commit. The result is a growing cycle of distrust. The results of these studies are so compelling that in their book Premarital Sex in America (2011), sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker argue that even college campus dating culture can be explained by a shortage of men. Their charts show a direct relationship between the campus sex ratio and the likelihood that a woman who remains a virgin has a permanent boyfriend. The sex ratio, as it turns out, also affects the price of sex.
This study has greatly enriched our understanding of the relationship between the economy and declining marriage rates for those who stand to lose from changes in the US economy. But what about the winners? Could changing sex ratios also explain the continued marital orientation of those at the top of the US economy? The short answer is that among the successful, almost no one studies marriage. Charles Murray, who documents and celebrates the virtues of successful people, simply suggests that they demonstrate an ongoing commitment to hard work, godliness, and the absence of crime.
What we do know is that men at the top (and only at the top) are ahead of women financially. Top managers and the financial sector account for 58% of revenue growth at the top. These leaders are overwhelming men. Indeed, the six job categories with the largest pay gaps between men and women are in finance, and the number of women employed on Wall Street has declined since 2000. 1990 But these changes mostly affected the middle and bottom of the economic ladder. At the top, the wage gap has widened, and it has grown for college graduates in general when looking at the average numbers. After adjusting for specialization, working hours, education, and other factors, the most significant increase in gender differences occurs above the 90th percentile.
What does this mean for marriage? We think this answers the question of why we have different groups moving in different directions at the same time. Greater inequality has changed how men and women fit together. At the top, men and women marry later and overwhelmingly marry each other. During the Mad Men era of the 1960s, executives married their secretaries; today they marry fellow leaders and do so at a much later age than the rest of the population. In this group alone, since 1990, the wealth of men has increased more than that of women. If we picture successful men as looking for partners who share their ambitions, then these men face fewer equally successful women.
Therefore, the secret of the connection between inequality and the family lies in its effect on the status of men. Men are at the very top of the economy, and those who sit there tend to marry a small group of equally successful and well-educated women. Men are also disproportionately below, and here they are practically unable to marry. This leaves a larger group of women in the middle with fewer matchups.
their partners. Inequality makes these divisions sharper than they were in other eras and creates cultural differences that reinforce each other. In short, inequality has changed the marriage market, making marriage very attractive to some and disadvantageous to others.
So what does it matter that we have different marriage cultures and family structures among different classes? Beyond the erosion of the national family narrative, class family structures have a profound effect on children's life chances. Class differences now overshadow racial differences in predicting the educational outcomes of the next generation. Class gaps have widened in children's cognitive achievement, college attendance, civic engagement, sports participation, and feelings of isolation and loneliness. And this threatens not only the children at the bottom, not only their families, but all Americans.