Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Today in inequality reading: Can middle class marriages be saved?

In a July column with Ben Boychuk, I suggested the growing American inequality of the last 30 years probably had something to do with the fact that more Americans are "opting out" of marriage:
One of the prime benefits of wedlock is the economic security that comes from partnering. But such security has been increasingly difficult to come by: America's median household incomes have stagnated since 1980, even though many more households now have both a mother and a father working outside the home. That stagnation is easy to attribute to conservative policies that have steered more money to rich individuals and big corporations at the expense of workers.

In other words: It's much harder to raise a family. No wonder more middle-class Americans are "retreating from marriage," choosing cohabitation or divorce over the increasing economic strains of commitment.
That assertion was greeted with some skepticism, but now I've got some backing from Don Peck in his new article at The Atlantic, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?"
In the March 2010 issue of this magazine, I discussed the wide-ranging social consequences of male economic problems, once they become chronic. Women tend not to marry (or stay married to) jobless or economically insecure men—though they do have children with them. And those children usually struggle when, as typically happens, their parents separate and their lives are unsettled. The Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has connected the loss of manufacturing jobs from inner cities in the 1970s—and the resulting economic struggles of inner-city men—to many of the social ills that cropped up afterward. Those social ills eventually became self-reinforcing, passing from one generation to the next. In less privileged parts of the country, a larger, predominantly male underclass may now be forming, and with it, more-widespread cultural problems.

What I didn’t emphasize in that story is the extent to which these sorts of social problems—the kind that can trap families and communities in a cycle of disarray and disappointment—have been seeping into the nonprofessional middle class. In a national study of the American family released late last year, the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox wrote that among “Middle Americans”—people with a high-school diploma but not a college degree—an array of signals of family dysfunction have begun to blink red. “The family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans,” which in the 1970s closely resembled those of college graduates, now “increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children.”
Conservatives like to blame lower-class refusal to marry on welfare—and perhaps it plays a role—but the truth is that unemployment and poverty do plenty to damage the institution of marriage on their own.

Read the whole thing. It's a long and mostly discouraging article that focuses on the effects of inequality, generally. There's hope, but it will take decades to achieve—if at all—by which time late-30s men and women like myself will have been displaced, economically, but younger generations.

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