Before marriage becomes history for low-income Americans, the country needs to show them some love.
Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, but you don’t see many of those on the streets these days.
No, marriage isn’t going away, but it is changing, not because love has gone out of fashion, but because economic realities are altering the institution.
We head toward Valentine’s Day this year with marriage being accessible to more people, as states like ours legalize same-sex marriages. That’s a good change.
But at the same time, marriage moves further toward being a rarity among poor and working-class Americans. That is not an indication of societal health.
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Despite the song lyrics, marriage has always been about more than love. In fact, for most of its history, marriage had very little to do with love at all.
For thousands of years, marriage in the Western world has been about things such as alliances, property and labor.
It has been an institution for the well-to-do before in its long history, but it shouldn’t be that way in a society that aspires, at least in theory, to be classless.
The Evergreen State College professor and expert on family life, Stephanie Coontz, has written that marriage has survived for so long because it always adapts to current conditions.
Today’s reality is stalled social and economic mobility and a crushing lack of opportunity for working-class people.
The percentage of adult Americans who are married is at a record low. The Pew Research Center reported in December that only 51 percent of adults, 18 and older, were married in 2010 versus 72 percent in 1960. And the trend is downward.
But if you look more closely at the numbers, what you see is different segments of the population moving apart.
Marriage rates are higher for Americans who have college degrees and have good incomes than for those without.
The pattern used to be just the opposite, with people who didn’t go to college marrying at a higher rate and earlier than those who did go.
What changed wasn’t a matter of morals, but of money.
Jobs for working-class people evaporated. This was especially true for men, as the kind of work many of them did moved overseas.
Women have been left to choose from among fewer prospective partners who are employed or well-paid.
In surveys, women say they’d rather not marry an unemployed man. Duh.
The impact of joblessness on marriage has been apparent among black Americans for many years. The kinds of unemployment rates white workers are seeing since the recession had taken hold among black Americans decades earlier and worsened as jobs fled Detroit and other industrial cities.
Now that pain is felt all over and is reflected in falling marriage rates. And because marriage is a huge financial advantage, those falling marriage rates make it extremely difficult for people to improve their financial and social circumstances.
People still fall in love; nothing that happens with marriage will change that. But fewer people are in a position to dream of that better life we’ve gotten accustomed to expecting as part of the package.
That is a problem for the entire society, because thriving families are where our success as a nation begins.
There is no single switch to throw to change the current situation, but every policy decision we make together should take the growing gap into consideration, particularly when it affects education and work. We can’t let so many Americans fall further behind.
We need to show them some love.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jerrylarge.