Friday, April 06, 2007

The Scariest Family Idea: Marriage is Just for the Rich

As the marriage rate reaches disastrous lows among some poor subgroups in America, a scary idea has been developing: marriage is just for the rich. In neighborhoods where babies are common but husbands are not, a wedding is something women hope for, the way they hope to win the lottery.

This kind of thinking misses the powerful effect of marriage as a cause of being middle class, not just as an effect of being born there. People who finish high school and stay married have a slim chance of ending up poor, not matter where they started out in the class structure.

The overall divorce has been going down, led by a decline in the divorce rate among college graduates. College graduates know the newest information about family life – including the knowledge that marriage is good for women and for men, that married people live longer, are happier, and end of richer. College graduates are doing less cohabiting for a similar reason. Things are looking up for marriage from the middle of the social structure upward.

Putting these two ideas together, I see this message: smart poor people get an education and a marriage. The people with the most education, no matter how poor they started out, are already getting the message. The next step is to preach this good news to the poor: you can be married, and it will go well with you and your children.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you for the most part, but wonder if you're overlooking the difficulties of maintaining a marriage when you've never had a role model of such. You point out that it is rare for a high school grad to be married and poor. Assuming then that most poor people were not raised by married parents, don't they have more obstacles in not knowing how to make a marriage work?

Anonymous said...

It is difficult to do something hard if you have no model. Still, divorced kids make good marriages everyday. Moreover, the collapse of marriage among some poor groups is relatively recent, and not universal. Married grandparents are common. The main hope, though, is that pro-marriage institutions, especially churches, will bring models to those who need them most.