The most widely-quoted statistical trend from Charles Murray’s blockbuster 2012 book Coming Apart is that marriage rates have declined dramatically among white working class Americans over the last half-century while remaining constant among the elite. Murray summarized his findings in the Wall Street Journal (using the fictional “Belmont” as a stand-in for white college educated professionals, and “Fishtown” as a stand-in for blue-collar whites without a college degree) as follows:
In 1960, extremely high proportions of whites in both Belmont and Fishtown were married—94% in Belmont and 84% in Fishtown. In the 1970s, those percentages declined about equally in both places. Then came the great divergence. In Belmont, marriage stabilized during the mid-1980s, standing at 83% in 2010. In Fishtown, however, marriage continued to slide; as of 2010, a minority (just 48%) were married. The gap in marriage between Belmont and Fishtown grew to 35 percentage points, from just 10.
Coming Apart set off a vigorous and wide-ranging debate among pundits over the causes of this shift. Many conservatives saw Murray’s data as evidence that there was a strong cultural dimension to the inequality debate that had dominated the public consciousness since Occupy Wall Street came on to the scene in 2010—that it wasn’t just economic changes, but also (interrelated) changes in norms and behaviors and values, that had turned America into a more stratified society since the 1960s. Liberals, for their part, said that conservatives were getting cause and effect backwards: that the decline of working class marriage hadn’t caused economic inequality, but economic inequality had caused the decline of the working class marriage. Paul Krugman, for example, argued that the marriage trends Murray highlighted could be attributed entirely to “a drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men,” who had been pummeled by globalization and technological change. This economics versus culture debate was never conclusively resolved, and probably never will be.
A new Brookings study, however, creates questions for materialists like Krugman who think that the inquiry into the decline of the working class family begins and ends with economic changes that have made less-educated men “unmarriageable” by dimming their employment prospects. In the study, Isabel Sawhill and Joanna Venator of the Brookings Center for Children and the Family, analyze “marriage markets”—that is, the ratio of men to women in various demographic groups. Contrary to the widely-accepted explanation that there is a shortage of marriageable men in the working class, Sawhill and Venator find that by most measures, there is actually a surplus. For example, among people aged 25-34 with no more than a high school degree, the ratio of employed men to all women is 1.07; the ratio of employed men to childless women is 1.74, and the ratio of employed, childless men to employed, childless women is 2.57. As the authors argue, it’s hard to see how a dearth of marriageable men explains the plummeting marriage rates among less-educated Americans if “marriageability” is defined (albeit simplistically) in as being employed and not having children from a previous relationship. The authors don’t deny that the transition to a post-industrial economy has been painful for working class men, but they question whether it is really responsible for the dramatic decline in marriage among that population, estimating “that the decline in male earnings for less skilled men can explain anywhere from none to almost half of the decline in marriage rates since 1970.”
Now, a shortage of men could explain a decline in marriage among elite Americans—except that the marriage rate among the elite population has barely declined. As Sawhill and Venator write, “it is the group of women who have the highest marriage rates—college-educated women—who are facing the greatest ‘shortage’ of men. In fact, using the conventional measure of marriageability—the ratio of employed men to all women—there are only 85 men for every 100 women among 25- to 35-year-old college-educated adults.” Many commentators (including us) have written about how the man-shortage among young, college-educated urban professionals contributes has contributed to a thriving hookup culture and an anemic dating scene, but it’s important to remember that this population—affluent, college-educated, upwardly mobile—has not been abandoning marriage so far. That could change, but so far the evidence suggests that educated young people are just tying the knot later, not eschewing marriage altogether (or at least, not at the same rate as their less-privileged counterparts).
So where does that leave us? The authors compellingly call into question the narrative, pushed by Krugman et. al., that the decline of marriage among the working classes is not a social crisis at all, but largely a product of income inequality, and that if it can be reversed, it can only be reversed through liberal economic policies. That doesn’t mean that the orthodox conservative explanation that upper-class debauchery since the 1960s has translated into an erosion of traditional norms among the less educated is right, either—but it does mean that thinkers of all ideological persuasions who are concerned about elite stratification should be thinking creatively about what combination of cultural, social, and economic changes have created the marriage gap, and how it can be addressed.