Why the retreat from marriage? Marriage rates have been declining for years in this country, but exactly why they have remains unclear. That’s because, while overall marriage rates are down, more affluent Americans tend to get and remain married. Indeed, non-marital childbearing among women with a college education is about 8%, i.e. almost exactly what it was in 1960. The decline in marriage is pretty much confined to blue collar workers and the poor.
And that’s a brain teaser. Why would the very people who financially need marriage the most be the ones who tend to forego it? Married men, particularly those with children earn significantly more than their unmarried and/or childless counterparts. And in any case, the simple fact is that almost any adult can earn more than the incremental cost of his/her presence in the household. Mom and baby require X amount to meet their expenses; add Dad and the household requires more money, but the increased amount is something all but the most dysfunctional adults can easily earn. Two earners are better than one in almost all cases.
Plus, it turns out that, while declining earnings tend to be associated with a decline in the marriage rate, increased earnings don’t produce the opposite. Journalist Timothy P. Carney makes the point here (Institute for Family Studies, 4/26/19). Towns that may have seen a factory closed, reducing wages and the marriage rate, were economically rejuvenated by the fracking boom. That created an excellent opportunity to study how people reacted to increased earnings.
[E]conomists Melissa Kearney and Riley Wilson of the University of Maryland studied similar fracking towns from Texas to Pennsylvania. Does boosting the wages of blue-collar men also boost marriage? If it did, this would strengthen the case that income determines marriageability.
But that’s not what happened. “[I]n response to local-area fracking production,” Kearney and Wilson found, “both marital and non-marital births increase and there is no evidence of an increase in marriage rates.” Furthermore, they concluded, “We find no evidence to support the proposition that as the economic prospects of less educated men improves, couples are more likely to marry before having children.”So the idea, advanced by some, that the economics of blue collar work (e.g. the sharp decline in manufacturing jobs) explain reduced marriage rates among that segment of society is dubious at best. Why wouldn’t those rates move back up once the new oil field money improved the bank accounts of those workers?
According to Carney, it comes down to more than just money. When the plant closes, that’s not all that goes.
[David] Autor’s study showed that the disappearance of jobs in a place led to a retreat from marriage in that place. This is true, but it skips a step: the factory closure is often the first domino to fall. The second domino to fall may be the coffeehouse next door—a complementary businesses that also serves as a community hub. Then people move out, and one of the churches closes. The old parishioners don’t want to go to the parish a town over, and so they stay home on Sunday. Social isolation spreads. The chain reaction, one by one, takes out the local institutions of civil society.
Tipping over the first domino can cause a chain reaction but standing the first one back up doesn’t cause the opposite reaction. Similarly, the death of blue-collar jobs can kill a community fairly quickly, but bringing back those jobs doesn’t bring back marriage. That’s because job restoration alone cannot instantly restore the local community institutions that support marriage—like churches, clubs, and local meeting places. These take time to re-emerge organically.It’s an interesting idea and seems to comport with the science on the matter. Certainly the many ways in which this society discourages marriage and encourages divorce apply equally to all people regardless of economic status. And yet not all people react to those influences the same. Specifically, the better educated you are and the more affluent, the less likely you are to produce children outside of marriage or to not get married in the first place.
If the local church closes, it does to for the well-to-do as well as the blue-collar worker. So why doesn’t the loss of those social resources impact elites the way they do others? Carney’s answer doesn’t persuade.
America’s elites still enjoy strong communities, planted thick with institutions—even if they call it “networking,” and don’t view it as anything special. In places where college degrees are rare and where factory jobs used to dominate, though, the little leagues, the swim clubs, the rotary clubs, and most of all the churches are fading away, delivering a death blow to family formation.So “networking” is the all-purpose social institution of America’s elites? I don’t buy it. Carney does no more than make the assertion and that’s not nearly good enough. He may be right, but he needs to demonstrate the fact, not just make the claim.
Plus, in Carney’s analysis, whatever happened to the well-known tendency of humans to band together when faced with catastrophe? We see it invariably in natural disasters, so why not in economic hard times? If the first domino to fall is the closing of the factory, why don’t people impacted by that band together? Why don’t couples realize that now is the very time to marry, to pool resources?
Those are good questions that Carney doesn’t answer. Still I think he’s on to something.