Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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November 8th, 2010

Happily Never After

How the American dream of marriage and family is increasingly out of reach for the less educated



There’s a widening gap between the haves and have-nots in America — and this time the fault line is marriage. Educated young adults are marrying and thriving in their unions, while those with less education are more likely to cohabit, less likely to ever marry, and more likely to divorce if they do wed. The latest data to support this argument comes from the Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends project analysis of sixty years of Census data, which finds that college-educated young adults are slightly more likely to marry by age 30 and significantly more likely to marry by age 40.

In my last column, I wrote about how the good news for educated Americans abounds: While men and women of all educational backgrounds are delaying marriage, among 35-to-39 -year-olds, four-fifths of college-educated adults have married versus only three-quarters of less educated adults. Perhaps most importantly, college graduates are more likely to be financially stable within those unions and less likely to divorce.

But education is often used as a proxy for social class, so a more concerning take on these findings is that American marriage patterns are diverging by socio economics. Marriage has clear economic benefits, as the Pew study notes: In 2008 the typical married adult had an adjusted household income of $76,652 versus $54,470 for the typical unmarried adult. This gap has been growing for decades. In the 1940s the key economic difference between households was how much the husband earned. Today, it’s whether a couple is married, and whether the wife works for pay.

Without job prospects, adequate household income and the commitment of marriage, it’s increasingly difficult for couples to gather the resources — both emotional and financial — to keep a rocky relationship together. And this is a cycle that seems self-perpetuating: With increasing numbers of less educated Americans cohabiting instead of marrying, more children are born into these fragile unions, at risk of being raised in poverty and with fewer educational resources of their own.

The Pew report notes that those without a college degree are more likely to experience divorce and multiple marriages than those with a college degree. Steven P. Martin, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, has found that, of marriages in which the wife had only a high-school diploma, 38% dissolved in the first 10 years, compared with 16.5% in which the wife had a college degree or more.

Solution to the growing divide

Part of the next decade’s recovery plan must be a way to close the widening gap between the haves and have-nots of marriage.

The solution to this growing divide isn’t simply to encourage more teens to attend four-year colleges. One argument is to strengthen families, encourage marriage among low-income and less-educated Americans, and put a focus on child rearing that values long-term commitments. Raising children to devote time and energy to education means asking them to be future-oriented, to have greater self-control and hope for an upwardly mobile future. These ideas are on shaky ground during tough economic times, but they are the core values that lead to not just marriage and relationship longevity, but prosperity and happiness.

Another argument is that families will also be strengthened by economic growth and a focus on creating living-wage blue-collar jobs will offer stability to marriage and family life. Economic insecurity has become a risk factor in divorce more than it once was, argues Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. “We have to think seriously about how to construct an economy that provides jobs for people who work with their hands and rewards people who work hard, whether or not they go to college.”

The cautionary tale from this new data is that the American dream of marriage and family is seemingly out of reach for a growing number of young adults. The diverging demographics of marriage shouldn’t be a liberal or conservative issue: Measures to encourage future-oriented commitment work in tandem with efforts to provide jobs and economic opportunities. Part of the next decade’s recovery plan must be a way to close the widening gap between the haves and have-nots of marriage.

So I’ll put it to you: What do you think we as young adult Catholics should do to close this widening gap? Let’s get a conversation going. This is a topic that will impact all of us for generations to come.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • ania

    One thing that I had learn was that people are way to interested in what you can do for them instead of what they can do for you, and that unfortunate in some situations carries into the marriage. In marriage there is no you or me it is only us. To many people say, “Yes, I eager” but then they turn around and do the opposite. We put a lot of ideas to our heads and not to our hearts. So when the time of testing comes as far as applying what they said, they fail. In my opinion we all are deferent, and we feel loved expressed differently. Money I do hope is not one of them.

  • missy

    mark and james on here have it right. to be married means to connect and stick together being converted on your thinking is the key not always money. sure you need money but you can still be happy and make do if you are poor.this whole big dream wedding is crap.i mean if ya want it and can do it fine but as for me take me to the courthouse im good to go. all i need is Jesus,a good man, and wisdom:)

  • Gypsy Boots

    We used to call those who didn’t live up to values they professed “hypocrites.”

    But we now see a new kind of inconsistency; educated, privileged people who, in fact, do believe in marriage and the family for themselves, but who somehow feel obliged to publicly advocate choices and values that, when adopted by the poor, have a very destructive effect.

    It’s the “Murphy Brown” or “Sex in the City” problem. Choices or lifestyles that TV portrays as glamorous or courageous, such as having a child out of wedlock, have devastating effects on already poor people.

    While it’s true that there’s a real chicken-or-egg issue here, the article could have done a better job in pointing out that it’s often enough poor choices that perpetuate poverty. Sure, single mothers getting a community college degree should be supported; but what if they had managed to avoid becoming single mothers to begin with? Is it really “helping” the poor to stay silent on the moral choices that not only conduce to family happiness, but also help them escape poverty?

  • sensei ronald j.f panlilio

    Education helps any situation. But from what I have learned the job of a husband is to love his family as jesus loves the church. Meaning to bring himself and his wife and kids closer to christ daily. There is no promise of economic gain from marriage. But I do believe that god will provide what people need as far as providing for a family, or kids, education, food and shelter. Prayer and really discerning for a partner is important and should be a huge factor in choosing a wife or husband. It is not the responsibility of the government or the church to make marriage a success.

    Most people enter into marriage too lightly. Americans often cheat on their spouses, or use birth control, or even abortion, or only get married because their partner is wealthy. To me that is why most marriages fail: because they did not enter into them with pure intentions. And ultimately that is where we are failing as a community in teaching so many poor values in the general community with television, music, and movies, and public schools that do not even allow us to talk about God.

    And honestly if people are not educated, in a way that they can relay good lessons and experiences, stories and values to kids then they probably should not be getting married yet anyways. I am not saying education is a requirement, but I do agree that it will help a marriage for both partners to have an education.

    I do also agree that a big wedding is not necessary. A smaller wedding might be more appropriate and maybe a better use of the money would be to invest in a home for the couple to live in together after marriage.

    And single parents do need help: and if the government doesn’t help them than I do not know what other agency could do that.

  • Mandy P

    James – I agree with your points on big weddings. It has always seemed strange to me to have a big party celebrating the start of something when anniversaries really deserve all the celebration. People can learn about the simplicity of weddings at home. If they have families that expect a big wedding couples might feel that since they are “letting their family down” by living together that at least a big wedding will make things right.

    As far as the incentives for single moms, I can’t agree with you on that one. Yes, some people do exploit the system but I can’t in good conscience support a program that would take away needed aid to women who choose life over abortion and are struggling to raise their children.

    Another great article from Christine! You are a wonderful gift to Busted Halo!

  • James

    One of the best ways to encourage people to marry is to convince them that it’s okay just to go get it done simply with a couple of witnesses. Even make it seem glamorous! Question a cohabiting couple that say they can’t afford to get married, and what you find is that they can’t afford the huge consumption fest that is “every girl’s dream since she was a child”. Many of these people can’t afford their “dream wedding”, but anybody can afford to get married. Wean girls (and their boyfriends) off the Disney princess model of marriage, and people are more likely to get hitched. (One of the happiest couples I know got married at lunch time and went back to work!)

    The second thing is that we have to remove the government financial incentives for not getting married. Many less educated women know all the angles for getting free stuff from the government — there are programs galore — but it all requires that they have their kids out of wedlock. Some of them live with the father of their children for years, but marrying him would be jumping off the gravy train, so they won’t do it.

  • Mark Herwaldt

    Although I can’t argue with the stats, I do believe that the real problem isn’t wealth or education. It is only a symptom. The underlying problem is faith not money. The Catholic church is doing a far less credible job reaching and evangelizing the lower income and less educated than 50 years ago. You have to look at our Catholic schools who are increasingly serving the wealthy not the poor. I don’t think the answer is more education. I think it is conversion. When one is converted, they become better students and better spouses and better workers.

  • pedrom

    The Church is already working to foster living wage legislation in a variety of States. This is one piece of the puzzle. Creating support for all families in parishes and schools is another. Can any lower middle class families afford a Catholic elementary school these days? It’s becoming more and more rare. What parish programs exist to help couples, not just religious ed but parenting, life skills, job coaching/counseling, etc. The Mormon’s do a great job at creating support programs and not just religious ed programs.

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