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
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.