Skip to Navigation

Investigating the Link between Income Inequality and Marriage Rates

March 24, 2014

This feature is part of a new RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

Current Visiting Scholar Andrew Cherlin’s ongoing research investigates the social consequences of increased polarization in the U.S. labor market over the last few decades. Combining analyses of longitudinal data with qualitative interviews with young men, Cherlin argues that deindustrialization of the American economy is a major factor in the decline of the working-class family.

In a new interview with the Foundation, Cherlin discussed the ways in which the polarization of the labor market has affected marriage rates, and what this means for low-income populations. Click here to read more about his work at the Russell Sage Foundation.

Q. Your research discusses the disappearance of a unified “working class” in the U.S. But at the same time, income inequality is higher than ever, and most job growth has been in the low-wage sector. Do we still have a “working class,” and if so, what does that look like today?

No, we don't have a working class in the sense of a large group of industrial workers and their families living a distinct lifestyle. The closest we come today to a "working class" is the large group of moderately-educated adults—those with a high-school degree but not a 4-year college degree. In the book I am writing I have begun to call them the "shadow working class." These are the people who would have taken industrial jobs in large numbers if the American economy still had them. Instead they are taking jobs that typically pay less, don't offer many fringe benefits, and don't last as long—precarious unemployment. So they have a much weaker tie to their jobs than their parents did. The blue-collar, working-class family peaked in the 1950s and 1960s and has declined ever since.

Q. Your research specifically looks at “marriage inequality”—or rather, the disparity between marriage rates of professional-class men and working-class men—which tends to narrow as inequality declines. Can you explain the ramifications of lower marriage rates for lower income people? Can lower marriage rates be attributed to cultural shifts?

What lower income people have lost with the decline in marriage is family stability. That’s particularly important for children, who don’t do as well when parents, parents’ partners, and stepparents cycle in and out of the home. Granted, not everyone wants to marry or should marry, but in the U.S. marriage is still the way we do stable family life. (As opposed to some European countries, where long-term, stable cohabiting relationships are much more common.) As marriage has declined in the U.S. among the low- and moderate-income population, nothing stable has replaced it. That’s the problem – the instability and complex relationships that characterize family life today for low- and moderate-income people.

As to what caused this shift, both cultural and economic factors have played a role. A half-century ago, having a child outside of marriage was considered shameful, but today it is widely accepted. Living together without being married was also shameful, whereas today the great majority of young adults do it at some point. So cultural shifts have played a role. But the reason that low- and moderate-income young adults have moved toward non-marital births is not just because they are acceptable but also because the labor-market prospects of men without college degrees are much worse than a generation or two ago. Without the prospect of a good marriage in the future, many of them go ahead and have children anyway. In contrast, college-educated young adults, who still have good job prospects, will cohabit but won’t have children until after they marry.

Q. What would effective policies to address marriage inequality look like? Is narrowing the gap between rich and poor enough to change marriage rates?

Narrowing the gap between the rich and poor would help a lot. Over the past 130 years, the degree of marriage equality has been directly related to the size of the economic gap between rich and poor. As to how to narrow that gap, almost everyone agrees on the importance of increasing the education and skills of children and adolescents from disadvantaged families. That’s crucial, but by itself it probably isn’t sufficient. We also need some direct labor market interventions such as subsidizing low wages through an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and raising the minimum wage. And if it were possible to successfully get out a cultural message, we might urge young adults not to have a child until they are sure they are in committed, last relationships.