The National Marriage Project has just released their periodic “State of Our Unions” study charting the status of marriage in the United States.
The most remarkable finding is that marriage is declining among moderately educated two-parent families, while marriage success is increasing among the more educated. Some of the predominant findings/charts are below, pulled directly from the study:
- “Divorce rates are up for moderately educated Americans, relative to those who are highly educated.”
- “Marital quality is declining for the moderately educated middle but not for their highly educated peers.”
- “The children of highly educated parents are now more likely than in the recent past to be living with their mother and father, while children with moderately educated parents are far less likely to be living with their mother and father.”
Figure 8. Percentage of 25–60-year-olds Believing Divorce Should be More Difficult to Obtain, by Education and Decade
Figure 4. Percentage of Women 25–44 Years Old Who Have Ever Cohabited, by Education and Year
Figure 1. Percent Chance of Divorce or Separation Within 10 Years of First Marriage, 15–44 year-old Women, by Education and Year of Marriage
Ross Douthat of the New York Times commented on the shifting “factions” of the culture war in his article “The Changing Culture War” (published today). He writes that the study highlights the marital problems arising among the moderately educated class (“the 58 percent of Americans with high school diplomas and often some college education, but no four-year degree”). While social observers divide the culture war into two camps – the working-class conservatives who religiously value marriage and liberal elites who fight for more flexible divorce laws and challenge the importance of stable marriages and traditional sexual norms – it seems that the educated elite now contains a large number of upwardly mobile religious conservatives, and the less educated groups are paying the debt of changing norms regarding sex and the family. While liberal elites challenge the sanctity of marriage and the importance of premarital abstinence and strict divorce laws, they seem to reap the benefits of marriage for themselves and their children, leaving social experimentation to others.
This decline is depressing, but it isn’t surprising. We’ve known for a while that America has a marriage gap: college graduates divorce infrequently and bear few children out of wedlock, while in the rest of the country unwed parenthood and family breakdown are becoming a new normal. This gap has been one of the paradoxes of the culture war: highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.
But the Marriage Project’s data suggest that this paradox is fading. It’s no longer clear that middle America does hold more conservative views on marriage and family, or that educated Americans are still more likely to be secular and socially liberal.
That division held a generation ago, but now it’s diminishing. In the 1970s, for instance, college-educated Americans overwhelmingly supported liberal divorce laws, while the rest of the country was ambivalent. Likewise, college graduates were much less likely than high school graduates to say that premarital sex was “always wrong.” Flash forward to the 2000s, though, and college graduates have grown more socially conservative on both fronts (50 percent now favor making divorces harder to get, up from 34 percent in the age of key parties), while the least educated Americans have become more permissive.
There has been a similar change in religious practice. In the 1970s, college- educated Americans were slightly less likely to attend church than high school graduates. Today, piety increasingly correlates with education: college graduates are America’s most faithful churchgoers, while religious observance has dropped precipitously among the less-educated.
Douthat is not the only one who is taking notice of the study; the news media is paying attention. The Huffington Post reports that “while moderately-educated people traditionally mimicked the behavior of the upper class, they are now in the midst of a “historic reversal” insofar as they are mirroring the attitudes and actions of the lower class.” The Washington Times interviewed co-author Professor Wilcox from University of Virginia:
Many highly educated Americans might have “progressive views on social issues in general,” said Mr. Wilcox, but “when it comes to their own lives, they are increasingly adopting a marriage mindset and acting and accordingly.”
It is important to note that most Americans do not fall in the most educated group, indicating that the decline in marriage, while not seen among the most educated groups, is not slowing. Progressive attitudes toward marriage, while expressed by the most educated, are lived out be the least. Of course, we’ve seen data in the past, especially from Kathryn Edin’s (et al) Fragile Families study, that shows the decline of marriage in low income communities, but the spread of marital decline to “moderately educated” groups has not been well-identified until now.
These interesting results might make us question how elitist attitudes toward marriage and sex have pervaded the less educated class while not affecting the elites themselves? Since we know that the lack of marriage is highly correlated with poverty, is the failure of marriage in lower educated and low-income areas a self-perpetuating cycle? Children from broken homes are less likely to achieve academic success, have healthy relationships, and otherwise reap the benefits of having a father and mother in the home.
As Douthat concludes, “While college-educated Americans battle over what marriage should mean, much of the country may be abandoning the institution entirely,” we should be wary of the decline of marriage among not only the least advantaged groups, but now also among the in-between group, which has traditionally mirrored the lifestyles of the more educated classes.