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How Inequality Shapes the American Family

Inequality changes who we are, individually and collectively.

How do you decide who to marry, or whether to marry at all? How many children to have? Whether to engage in short-term hookups or long-term partnerships?

We don’t like to think that economic forces outside our individual control can shape the most intimate aspects of our lives. But a growing body of evidence suggests that inequality is changing not only American family structures, but the roles men and women play and the calculations they make in pairing and establishing households. Inequality changes who we are, individually and collectively

For example, there are fewer men with stable economic cicrumstances for women to choose from as appropriate long-term partners at both the lower and middle rungs of the economic ladder. A shortage of men in the less financially stable groups means that the guys who do look like good prospects don’t feel any particular pressure to commit. So they don’t. On the other hand, working-class and poor women who consider marrying men who may get laid off or become financial burdens are less ready to commit themselves.

At the top of the economic ladder, conditions are quite different. There people have resources to cope with childcare, good schools, therapy, and other things that can help families succeed. More lasting commitments and greater family stability go hand-in-hand with greater resources.

Law professors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn have been investigating how inequality influences family life. In their new book, Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family, they find we are creating profound social changes through America’s tolerance of wealth and income disparities. In the New Gilded Age, class once again becomes a dominant force in human life, just as it was aboard the Titanic. In an email interview, I caught up with the authors to delve further into the new class-based American family.

Lynn Parramore: Why did you write this book at this time?

June Carbone and Naomi Cahn: We wrote the book because we are concerned that marriage has become a marker of socioeconomic class. The book addresses three questions about the relationship between economics and the family that arose from our previous research.

First, we knew from our family law studies that almost all simple statements about the family are misleading. Take divorce rates. We began to hear in the ’90s that they were leveling off. In fact, divorce rates are not leveling off for anyone. Instead, they are moving in two diametrically opposed directions. The divorce rates for college graduates, who marry later and largely marry each other, have fallen dramatically, back to the levels of the mid-’60s before no-fault divorce. Everyone else’s divorce rates have continued to rise. So looking at the aggregate figures obscures what is happening to the family and we wanted to make these differences—the movement of families is opposed directions by class—explicit.

Second, in our earlier book, Red Families v. Blue Families, we explored why the vote maps onto family form. We found that the more conservative areas of the country encouraged younger ages of marriage and more fertility, which in turn produced teen births and divorces. The more liberal areas of the country produced later marriages, more non-marital cohabitation, more support for contraception and abortion, and greater investment of resources in each child. We knew that one of the things we were seeing was a wealth effort—blue areas of the country were richer to begin with and in an area of inequality and austerity, regional differences were increasing. We wanted to address the role of socio-economic class as a factor that exacerbates these ideological, political and cultural differences.

Third, and perhaps most important, is that we have an explanation for why this is happening. Almost everyone tries to deny that the economy shapes the family directly. Consider the question of why women have children without marrying. Social conservatives insist that a fall in male wages cannot explain cultural change and the problem must be societal values. Liberals agree that individuals do not engage in cost-benefit calculations about intimate partners, emphasizing, for example, that women don’t have more children because of the size of welfare benefits. We try to explain how changes in the economy remake marriage markets and how these changes affect the way that men and women match up with each other and alter their expectations about each other.

We take two prototypical couples and follow them through the book. We show how their attitudes are shaped by those around them. Both men and women today both want a spouse who will be a true partner. A true partner, however, requires finding someone you can trust and we describe how society promotes that trust for some and undermines it for others.

The conclusion in our book that has received the most attention is the conclusion that, legally, marriage to an unreliable man is a really bad deal for women and that one thing today’s society produces, because of unstable employment, mass incarceration, substance abuse and violence, is a larger number of unreliable men.

LP: What do conservatives get wrong about the increase of divorce and single parenthood among those with fewer economic resources?

JC & NC: The single most infuriating view is that it is simply a matter of values. Charles Murray, and many others, argue that the culture, led by liberal Hollywood and seventies feminists, has moved away from an emphasis on virtue toward a “do what feels good” ethos. In the meantime, the children of the liberal elite still marry (and increasingly stay married) while the working class, which presumably depends on someone else to tell them what to do, is left high and dry, with no one instilling the proper values. In his latest book [Coming Apart], Murray’s only proposal was to have the rich come out of their “gated communities” and berate the men who fail at low-wage jobs as “bums.” Elsewhere, he says that women would shape up if only we took away their children and put them in orphanages. His specialty is blaming the victim. We think of him as the equivalent of the bully who trips someone at a bar and then criticizes him for having the bad manners to bleed on the carpet.

In fact, poor people have the same views toward marriage as everyone else. They don’t marry because they accurately perceive that marriage is a risk—it is a commitment to care for someone who may be more of a threat than an asset in raising children. The popular stereotype is that the men have abandoned their children, but in fact the women are more often the ones who end the relationships and the men typically try to stay involved with the children after the breakup.

Some social conservatives do acknowledge the importance of jobs. They agree that the decline in employment for blue-collar males is at least part of the story. The practical problem is that modern conservatism routinely attacks the policies, such as Obama’s original stimulus proposals, most likely to generate greater employment. Almost all of the changes in the stimulus bill conservatives championed, such as substituting tax cuts for federal infrastructure spending or eliminating revenue sharing with the states that would have prevented public sector layoffs, had the effect of decreasing employment. We don’t hear many objections to these policies from the family values group.

LP: How is inequality changing gender roles associated with partnering and marriage?

JC & NC: The short answer is that growing inequality has changed the ways that men and women match up with each other, but it hasn’t really changed the underlying expectations about gender roles in relationships. That’s a problem.

At the top, increasing disparities among men and among women have made both pickier about potential mates and wary of early commitments that might limit future opportunities. Male executives used to marry their secretaries, who would take care of them at home the way they did in the office. Now both men and women look for mates who enhance their own chances of enjoying the good life, who will be partners in life and in parenting. College graduates still largely forge lasting relationships (typically with one another), but they hedge their bets by delaying marriage and childbearing until they have a better idea of where they (and the partners to whom they commit) are likely to end up—concentrating elite advantage in the process as they overwhelmingly raise their children in financially secure, two-parent families. For this group, the gendered gap in wages has increased: the men are the big winners in this group. As a result, the top women have a larger group of men eager to pair with them. We view it unsurprising that the only group in society whose marriage rates have increased are the top five percent of women by income.

Couples with the least income share the same remade marital ideal. They, too, want someone they can trust and who will contribute equally to the family. This group, however, no longer sees marriage working for those in the community around them and they believe that deferring childbearing until they find the right partner is pointless. We hear many of these women justifying the decision to bear an unplanned child in terms of their opposition to abortion, but many of the women gave up on finding the right partner long before they became pregnant.

The hardest patterns to analyze are those of the middle: the group clustered around the 50th percentile of family income in the United States. This group used to be called the “white working-class,” but today it is more racially diverse than the comparable group 50 years ago or the college-educated upper third today. Americans in this group have graduated from high school, but lack a B.A. Many started at a university but didn’t finish, or have a community college or vocational degree.

The women from these families in the middle have done well. Unlike the top group, where the sons are more likely to graduate from college than the daughters and the gender gap in income has widened, the women in this group have outpaced the men. They earn higher grades, stay in school longer, and are more likely to return to complete an unfinished degree later in life. When they have the same education and work hours as the men, they have narrowed the gender gap in income. The men in this group, however, have lost ground. Yet, traditional gender roles and the expectation that the man will head the family remain deeply embedded in this group.

Conservatives like to blame liberal elites for the cultural changes that support family diversity, but we see it the other way around. If the elites had really embraced single family arrangements or remade gender roles, they would be remaking society to provide more support for alternative families. Instead, red and blue elite both embrace the two-parent family; they just disagree on how to get there. Their disagreements block support for alternative arrangements.

LP: Is money really the glue that holds people together?

JC & NC: No, it’s status. In this book, we follow two protoyptical couples through these issues. One of them, Tyler, is a law student. We try to explain why he marries the law student he had met rather than his last girlfriend. In both cases, he thought he was in love. In one case they live together; in the other case they marry. Part of the difference is timing; he is ready to settle down in his early 30s and not in his mid-20s. On the surface, it looks like he picks the woman who will earn more, but he doesn’t think of it that way. Instead, he marries when he finds a partner who makes him feel good about himself; who shares his idea of what the good life involves. In Tyler’s case, it is someone who pushes him to work harder. We try to show that both men and women are reluctant to marry someone they feel is holding them back; they are eager to marry when they believe they have found someone special. What makes that person “special,” though, depend on what the couple sees around them.

Our other couple, Lily and Carl, give up on each other before the child is born. Carl knows he cannot live up to Lily’s expectations and doesn’t want to try. Once he runs up her credit card bill (or in other stories we have heard, cheats on her), the relationship is over. What is harder to explain is why Lily is with Carl in the first place. The answer is the “good men” in her life are slim pickings. A man who completes college, holds a steady job, or is a really good partner moves into a different marriage market; he doesn’t end up with Lily. And the men who have some of these qualities, such as reliable income, find that they can date multiple women without committing to any of them.

In an era of less inequality, Tyler and Lily, who grew up fairly close to each other, might have been in the same marriage market. Today, when Tyler goes off to an elite college, he leaves the Midwest, never to come back. Lily, who is stuck in an area with few good jobs and little opportunity for advancement, is paired with a large group of unreliable men. We try to show that the economy doesn’t change love—or sexual attraction. Instead, it tells Tyler that the choice of a partner has a huge payoff if he does it well and it tells Lily that the next guy is unlikely to be any better than this one. These messages, which comes from the nature of our high stakes, radically unequal society, is the core of the book.

Just because we talk about marriage markets doesn’t mean that we think intimate relationships are based on money! We are well aware that the concept of a “marriage market” encounters resistance. Many from all political and philosophical persuasions object to the very idea of treating how men and women match up when they search for a life partner as something that should ever be the product of exchange or accounting. We’re using the term to refer to supply and demand. But people get married because of love.