Her latest book is Marriage Markets: We graduated from college, became established in our professions, got married, and had children. Our children and most of our friends have followed the same pattern.
Our family experiences might be typical of the college-educated professionals around us — but not at all typical for large segments of the American public. In the middle of the 20th century, during a period of more widely shared prosperity, almost everyone in the United States married.
There were some differences. African-American women were a bit more likely to marry and at younger ages than white women, and college graduates were a bit less likely to marry than high-school graduates. But the similarities across class lines were striking. The age of marriage dropped in the generation after the Second World War, across the spectrum. For all Americans, divorce rates and non-marital birth rates were low, children overwhelmingly grew up in two-parent families, and white- and blue-collar couples alike wanted three to four children.
Like marriage age and divorce rates and ideal family size, family law in the post-war decades grew increasingly national. The US Supreme Court insisted that states modernise their treatment of unmarried fathers, women gained more equal rights and, in with the support of President Richard Nixon, the US Congress voted on a bipartisan basis to fund contraception access.
Throughout the US, family life had a certain consistency. Beginning in the s, things changed. Married Americans still reported rates of marital satisfaction consistent with earlier generations, but fewer got married.
At the same time, non-marital birth rates were rising. Much commentary interpreted single motherhood as a matter of individuals making bad choices. Now, the same patterns increasingly characterised white families. These broad trends in the US family — flat-lined levels of marital satisfaction, plateauing divorce rates, rising non-marital births — have stymied simple understanding. But that is because they cloak a deeper change, the way rising inequality is pushing US families in different directions.
Economic status is now more important than shared nationality in shaping family structure and choices. The divorce rate, for example, has only plateaued in the aggregate. It has dropped dramatically for college graduates — back to the levels of the mids before no-fault divorce — while it has continued to rise for everyone else. Professional women such as Murphy Brown were not leading the charge into single parenthood: It did however increase for other women — especially among the white working class.
Apparently steady rates of marital satisfaction also present a misleading picture. In reality, there are diverging patterns between the well-off and the struggling. In , couples experiencing financial distress reported less happy marriages than the financially secure, but the differences were relatively small. By , the differences had increased substantially. Those in financial distress had far less happy marriages, while the marital quality of the economically successful group had improved.
The real change in those 20 years was the disappearance of the middle, of the good-enough marriages that weathered bad times. In our families, when our children reached their late 20s, weddings from California to Maine filled their summer travels. Their well-educated and mostly liberal friends took marriage seriously.
But when we talked to working-class women from rural Kansas, during our research, we heard a different story. One woman we knew, a devout Christian, unmarried and pregnant, bristled when we asked about the father of her baby.
She did not want him to have anything further to do with her or the child. In The End of Men: And the Rise of Women , the journalist Hanna Rosin describes a Virginia woman in similar circumstances.
Conservatives have blamed Hollywood, liberals and a decline in cultural values. The libertarian Charles Murray first blamed welfare in Losing Ground: American Social Policy, but more recently shifted responsibility to the one per cent: In The Marriage Problem: Christian conservatives tend to agree with the cultural view, alleging that a loss of sexual restraint destroys the sacred links between marriage, sexuality and procreation: Women no longer have to marry or stay married to raise children.
We think this is a good thing. No-fault divorce has made it much easier for women to leave abusive husbands. But they are not. Instead, the only women whose marriage rates have not declined are the 10 per cent of women with the highest incomes. These are the most independent women. In contrast, marriage has all but disappeared for women who cannot realistically support a child without assistance. Nor does a decline in religious values provide a compelling explanation for these trends.
While couples embedded in a religious community such as the Mormons in Utah have marriages that last somewhat longer than those who do not attend church at all or couples who attend different churches , religious communities have higher divorce rates than secular communities.
Ever since the Moynihan Report chronicled the decline of marriage in the African-American community, progressives have maintained that the real problem is the lack of jobs, particularly for blue-collar men. Social conservatives have come to routinely include attention to employment as part of any realistic marriage-promotion agenda.
Conservatives continue to insist, however, that the decline in marriage rates applies to working, as well as unemployed, working-class men and that something cultural must be in play over and above the economic factors.
Could they be right? For at least a generation, a vibrant and discordant marriage debate has unfolded as though the economic and the cultural change provide two independent, even mutually exclusive causes. But our book Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family shows that the cultural and economic factors are deeply interdependent. In essence, rising inequality in the US is helping to produce different cultures of marriage.
Family formation is a process with different factors that reinforce each other, sometimes with ironic effects. Consider, for example, the impact of the criminal justice system on a community. Wilson saw law-enforcement, much like higher rates of marriage, as essential to fostering stronger and healthier communities. In this view, lower crime and higher marriage rates are classic cases of the whole being greater than the sum of their parts.
More marriages, like fewer broken windows, are supposed to be better for the whole community in a way that is greater than whatever sum of happy couples the marriages produce.
Yet the evidence has become compelling that increased incarceration for minor offences disproportionately affects minority communities and has a big impact on family stability, an impact that extends well beyond the understandably lower marriage rates of those in jail. Greater targeting of minor offenses catalyses changes that affect relationship norms in the whole community, and not towards increased marriage rates.
Understanding this dynamic gives us some clues about what might be happening to the family more generally. The immediate effect of increased incarceration is, of course, that there are fewer men in a community. As a matter of simple arithmetic, fewer women will be able to marry. But the effect goes beyond that. As far as women are concerned, men who are at risk of arrest for everything from jaywalking citations to pot possession to murder, are less reliable.
As the citations rack up, they become less employable, more subject to further arrests, and more likely to turn to unsavoury companions for income. Women in turn begin to rely more on themselves, for many things.
Studies confirm, for instance, that greater male incarceration leads to more female education and employment. Perhaps some do, but even the law-abiding men in these communities do not become marriage-focused; instead, they too become less likely to marry. In their smart book, Too Many Women?: The Sex Ratio Question , the sociologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord explained that a change in sex ratios — the number of men to women in a community — changes the behaviour of the entire group.
When men outnumber women, the men compete for the women. They become more eager to marry because otherwise they might be left out of relationships altogether. To do so, they invest more in the things that will attract women: The women get to choose.
Some will prefer higher-earning men; others might prefer better behaved, or funnier, wittier or more attentive men. These traits will then define the norms in the community. However, when women outnumber men in a community, something very different happens. As a group, the women do not compete harder for the men. Nor do the men aim for higher-status women, at least not if that means the women might outshine them. Instead, men work less hard, become less faithful, and find that they do not need to treat women as well to be able to find at least a temporary partner.
Rather than lower their standards, women respond by becoming more likely to give up on the men. They might sleep with them they still need them to have children after all , but they invest more in themselves, their own income prospects and their own relatives.
In short, they make exactly the decisions that women in the communities affected by mass incarceration policies make. Guttentag and Secord originally tested their theory by comparing ancient Athens and Sparta. They claimed that Sparta, the militaristic Greek province of the ancient world, practised infanticide on male babies who appeared weak at birth and took the boys off for wars and military service that further reduced their ranks.
As a result, they argued, the women of Sparta had reputations for being more liberated, sexually adventurous and wittier than women in Athens or the rest of the ancient world. Were Guttentag and Secord right? Although historians have questioned their description of Athens and Sparta, sociologists have since done cross-cultural studies validating their broader thesis. Typically, they find that communities where men outnumber women are more marriage-focused, have more productive males, and invest more in their children.
Marriage rates decline not just for the women, but for the men as well. This account of the impact of gender ratios has been enormously influential in the social sciences.