“The increase of baby carriages coming before marriage is terribly alarming among the working poor. Working-class women are nearly three times more likely to have babies out of wedlock than upper-class women. Poor women are about five times more likely. These two groups are far less likely to be married overall and twice as likely to be cohabiting.”
A foundational value in our nation is the opportunity for all its citizens to be able to compete for a fair and meaningful shot at the American dream. This begins with access to citizenship, educational opportunity, and securing meaningful work that leads to greater life opportunities via commitment, diligence, and self-sacrifice. But an important contributor to putting and keeping men, women, and children on the escalator toward the American dream is little-known and widely ignored.
Just 70 years ago, social mobility and protection from poverty were largely a factor of employment. Those who had full-time work of any kind were seldom poor. Fifty years ago, education marked the gulf separating the haves from the have-nots. For the last 20 years or more, though, marital status has increasingly become the central factor in whether our neighbors and their children rise above, remain, or descend into poverty. The research is astounding.
Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute explains in his important book “Coming Apart: The State of White America” that in 1960, the poorly and moderately educated were only 10 percent less likely to be married than the college educated, with both numbers quite high: 84 and 94 respectively. That parity largely held until the late 1970s.
Today, these two groups are separated by a 35 percent margin and the gap continues to expand. All the movement is on one side. Marriage is sinking dramatically among lower- and middle-class Americans, down to a minority of 48 percent today. No indicators hint at any slowing. It’s remained generally constant among the well-to-do. This stark trend line led Murray to lament, “Marriage has become the fault line dividing America’s classes.” He has company in this conclusion.
Marriage Matters Lots More than Income and Race
Jonathan Rauch writing in the National Journal, certainly no conservative, notes that “marriage is displacing both income and race as the great class divide of the new century.” Isabel Sawhill, a senior scholar at the center-left Brookings Institute, boldly and correctly proclaimed some years ago that “the proliferation of single-parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970s.” Virtually all of the increase!
Professor Bill Galston, President Clinton’s domestic policy advisor and now a senior fellow at Brookings, explained in the early 1990s that an American need only do three things to avoid living in poverty: graduate from high school, marry before having a child, and have that child after age twenty. Only 8 percent of people who do so, he reported, will be poor, while 79 percent who fail to do all three will.