It’s no secret that marriage is in decline across America.
For example, a recent PBS report noted that only half of U.S. adults are married, an all-time low. And of today’s Americans, only 72% have been married at some point, down from 85% in the 1960s.
But a lesser-known fact is that our country’s marriage declines have not been distributed evenly across the population. Poor people, in particular, are much less likely to get hitched than they were just a few decades ago.
Take men from the ages of 30 to 50. Among high earners — those in the top 10% based on annual income – the marriage rate has dropped from 95% in 1970 to 83% today. Along the way, these top-earning guys have seen their inflation-adjusted income increase.
But the story is different for the American male whose earnings are smack dab in the middle of the income distribution. This fellow has seen his real earnings fall nearly 30% since 1970 – and the odds this median man is married have plunged from 91% in 1970 to 64% today.
Overall, the data – gathered by the Hamilton Project, a think tank spun off from the Brookings Institution – paint a dramatic picture. The bottom line for dudes in San Diego and across America: most of us are making less money and having less luck in the marriage pool — changes which suggest we are having less sex, too.
Researchers for the Hamilton Project observe a similar pattern facing American women:
Marriage rates either held constant or increased for the top 10 percent of female earners over the last four decades. In contrast, the bottom 70 percent of female earners saw their marriage rates decline by more than 15 percentage points.
What is driving these changes? Why, for example, have marriage rates for high-earning women increased over time? On the latter question, the New York Times says there is no clear answer:
Perhaps the highest-paid female workers in the 1970s achieved that status by forgoing a personal life. And perhaps today it’s more socially acceptable for well-paid women to hire nannies and other household help so that they can maintain a family life, making marriage a more practical possibility.
And the Hamilton Project researchers note that at least some of the decrease in marriage across the country is driven by positive change:
In particular, many Americans are waiting longer to get married due to opportunities for women to pursue careers outside the home, due to better control over the timing of childbearing, and due to the ability to be more selective when choosing a spouse. These marriages starting later in life appear more stable and are less likely to end in divorce—a better outcome from any perspective.
But might there be more sinister forces driving the decline in marriage among the poor? All else being equal, does having less money mean the typical American has less chance at getting married? The authors of the Hamilton Project’s study think so:
Social scientists have long posited a relationship between economic opportunity and marriage. William Julius Wilson, in The Truly Disadvantaged, argued that the decline in marriage and rise in single parenthood among urban blacks was directly a consequence of the declining economic fortunes of young black men. High rates of unemployment and incarceration meant that the local dating pool was populated by unmarriageable men—and the result was that women chose to live independently.
The New York Times notes that, regardless of the causes, these changes in earnings and marriage patterns are boosting income inequality.
Rich men are marrying rich women, creating doubly rich households for them and their children. And the poor are staying poor and alone.
Speaking of American children, only 12% lived in single-parent households in 1968. Today, about 30% of kids live with just mom or dad — and these children of single parents are particularly vulnerable due to changes in money and marriage:
“Parental income inequality among children has dramatically increased over the last thirty-five years,” says the Hamilton Project, “creating an uneven playing field for future generations.”