by Rachel Sheffield
There is a growing marriage divide in the United States. Marriage rates among lower-income and working class Americans have declined dramatically, and unwed childbearing has become the norm. However, among college-educated Americans, marriage is doing pretty well: most marry, their unwed childbearing rate has remained nearly as low as it was five decades ago, and they are the least likely to divorce.
This marriage divide is driving a wedge through society: in the upper-income third of the population, children are raised by their married parents, who have college educations. In the rest of the population, children are often born to single mothers with a high school education or less.
There is an ongoing argument about what has driven the decline in marriage and the rise in unwed births in working-class America. The left often cites economic decline, as Cherlin does, whereas the right emphasizes cultural changes that came with the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Cherlin’s narrative is questionable for several reasons. For one thing, Americans are better off today than ever before. Wages for all Americans have increased since the 1970s. While the lowest- and highest-income groups in the US have seen the greatest wage growth, the average wage for working class Americans is still higher today than it was in the 1970s.
To his credit, Cherlin does not ignore the cultural factors driving down marriage rates. In particular, he points out that the introduction of the birth control pill “contributed to a larger cultural phenomenon that began in the 1960s—the separation of sex, marriage, and childbearing.” Between 1965 and 1972, the percentage of women under age 30 who agreed “that premarital sex is ‘always wrong’” dropped markedly, declining from 50 percent to 17 percent over just seven years. Please go to the Public Discourse page here.