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FIRST-PERSON: Marriage's decline in blue collar America

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (BP) -- There are two seismic -- yet under-the-radar -- trends happening in marriage and family today, but too few have taken note of them. The evangelical church would be wise to appreciate them, as we seek to minister in this area.


The first is the continued and growing alienation of men from family life. This alienation can be attributed to many things: the male's own choosing, women and culture's growing negative and unrealistic attitudes about men, artificial reproductive technology among single women as well as the push for parenting and adoption rights by same-sex couples. I have written about these previously.

The second is discussed here: The growing marginalization of marriage in blue collar America while it's doing better among the more educated classes. This has important consequences for the greater cementing of class divides.

A unique and important report has just been released by the Brookings Institute, co-authored by two of the world's leading marriage scholars: The more socially conservative W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and the socially liberal Andrew J. Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

Both scholars are concerned about the marked decline of marriage among those who have graduated from high school, but who have no college degree. This encompasses a full 58 percent of the adult U.S. population.


"Although marriage is still held in high regard across social classes in America, in recent years, moderately educated Americans have become less likely to form stable, high-quality marriages, while college-educated Americans (who make up 30 percent of the adult population) have become more likely to do so," Wilcox writes.


A distinct marriage divide is developing in the following ways among these two social classes:

-- High school-only grads are markedly more likely than college grads to have three or more sex partners in a lifetime.

-- Although many college graduates cohabit before marriage (markedly fewer, however, than non-college grads) nearly all of them (94 percent) marry before having their first child. This is not true for high school-only grads, with just 56 percent marrying before the birth of their first child.

-- And not only are high school-only grads more likely to have their children in cohabiting homes, but to also to raise them in this environment. This is of significant concern, given the profoundly higher levels of general volatility and instability in cohabiting homes.

-- Divorce rates among college grads have fallen to early-1970 levels in the last few years. Divorce has risen slightly for high-school grads.

-- Reports of college graduates being "very happy" in their marriages have remained stable at 69 percent since the 1970s. It has slipped a bit over this time frame for the moderately educated and dropped nearly 10 percent for those who've never graduated from high school.

-- A teen with a college-educated mother is just as likely to be living with both mother and father today as in 1970s (80 percent). This is not true for a teen living with a high school-only educated mother. While 74 percent of such teens lived with both mom and dad in the 1970s, now only 58 percent do.


Given how out-of-wedlock child-bearing, cohabitation and divorce are more likely to prevent adults and their children from advancing socio-economically -- while intact marriages boost such advancement -- this trend of declining marriage among the working-class should be of great concern to all who care about improving social mobility and living status.

While being blue collar is an economic status, it is not merely economics driving this decline. Professors Wilcox and Cherlin remind us that "there was no dramatic increase in nonmarital childbearing or cohabitation during the Great Depression, when millions of Americans experienced unemployment or underemployment."

They explain that other factors are contributing to this working-class retreat from marriage:

1. Dramatic changes in social norms surrounding sex and unmarried parenting.

2. Non-college educated Americans tend to be less involved in religious participation, which is not so true for the college-educated.

3. Changes in laws and attitudes that favor individual autonomy over social responsibility, as well as parenthood itself over marriage.

Wilcox and Cherlin show how all of these developments have happened more dynamically among the non-college educated than the college educated.

They conclude: "Taken together, these economic and cultural shifts have made Middle Americans less likely to get and stay married. Indeed, one sign that moderately educated Americans' faith in marriage is waning is that fully 43 percent of (them) ... report that 'marriage has not worked out for most people they know,' compared to just 17 percent of highly-educated young adults."


When any class of citizens turns away from marriage, it is not liberating nor empowering.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo., and is the author of the new book, "Secure Daughters Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity" (Multnomah, 2011).

1 W. Bradford Wilcox and Andrew J. Cherlin, "The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America," Center on Children and Families at Brookings, CCF Brief #46, August 2011, p. 2.

2 W. Bradford Wilcox, "When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America," a report from the National Marriage Project, University of Virginia, December 2010, p. ix.

3 Wilcox and Cherlin, 2011, p. 3.

4 Wilcox and Cherlin, 2011, p. 4.

Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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