18 March 2013

The Class Divide In Marriage

College-educated women typically have their first child two years after marrying. The high school graduates as a group have their first child two years before they ­marry.  In a statistic that runs counter to the image of unmarried mothers as reckless teenagers, the study said 58 percent of first births to women who have graduated only from high school are out of wedlock.
From here based upon a study entitled Knot Yet.  The study, which attempts to profile the costs and benefits to delaying marriage, opens with this observation:
The age at which men and women marry is now at historic heights—27 for women, and 29 for men—and is still climbing. The age at which women have children is also increasing, but not nearly as quickly as the delay in marriage.  
Median age at first birth has been lower than median age of marriage since about 1989, when I graduated from high school.  According to the study 48% of all births today are to unmarried women.

The biggest factor seems to be the declining capacity of men without college educations to provide a middle class life.
[T]he economic foundations that girded marriage in the mid-twentieth century have collapsed. In 1970, a man could count on finding a blue-collar job that paid an honest wage, where he could continue to work until he retired on a comfortable pension. At that time, a quarter of Americans, almost all of them men, still worked in the manufacturing sector; another significant percentage were in sectors requiring little formal education, like construction, mining, or utilities. The large majority of workers had, at best, a high-school education; college was financially unrealistic and largely irrelevant to their stable, decent-paying job. By their early twenties, or even their late teens, they were ready to support a family. . . .
For years now, men without a high-school diploma have had little hope for a stable job that could support a family. Obtaining a pension is like winning the World Series. Now, especially since the Great Recession, the same hard luck has come to those who have completed high school. In 2010, the national unemployment rate for people sixteen to twenty-four with only a high-school diploma was 24.6 percent, compared to a rate of 8 percent for the college educated.. . .
Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that growing numbers of Middle Americans are postponing marriage to their late twenties or thirties, or foregoing marriage altogether, as they search for jobs that will provide them with a middle-class lifestyle.
Women in the workforce, meanwhile, have seen their economic prospects improve dramatically since the 1970s and are now more likely to be college educated than men.  For example, in 1970, the percentage of law school students who were women was less than 5%, now at least half of law students are women.

UPDATE:  A quick observation as a footnote.  As is often the case a study that makes perceptive observations about the nature of the problem often veers off course when proposing solutions in a somewhat cursory conclusion.  I didn't recap its policy recommendation even though some of them may be sensible,  because they draw so heavily of matters beyond the scope of the study.

One point that is often missed when marriage policy is addressed that bears considering and caution in making any recommendation, however, is that most pro-marriage policy solutions are quite indiscriminate.  They encourage getting married and staying married in a way that is very ambivalent about the quality of the marriage itself.  The same policies that keep couples together in the face of external financial stress or simply getting "bored" of each other or feeling that one can find a more perfect soulmate also keep couples together in situations that most outsiders would consider abusive either physically or emotionally, or otherwise problematic in ways that justify the end of a marriage.

Even policies that were designed to make that distinction, like the fault based divorce regime did a poor job in practice of making those distinctions.

On the other hand, both domestic violence and child abuse are often correlated with financial stresses and marriage instability.  So, reducing financial stress on families could strengthen marriages and in the process undermine the external pressures that predispose people in those difficult situations to resorting to domestic violence and child abuse which may be seen as inferior tools that some people resort to when their families are falling apart anyway. 

For example, one recent study found an extremely strong link between severe domestic violence leading to felony criminal charges and actual or suspected infidelity by a female partner (this was present in almost every single such case in the Washington State county where the study based on discussions in recorded phone calls made by incarcerated men was conducted).  But, if women in financially secure families are less likely to have affairs, and men in financially secure families are less likely to worry about affairs whether or not this is mere paranoia, then greater financial security might greatly reduce serious domestic violence.

Similarly, poverty and the presence of a stepparent or non-biologically related adult in a household with a child are the two greatest risk factors for child abuse and neglect.  Financially secure families that stay in the same marriage that produced the couple's children greatly reduce both of these risk factors.

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