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It’s Not Just The Economy Devastating Working-Class Families

Less decent-paying work for less-educated men, cultural shifts away from marriage-centered familism, and the erosion of masculinity have drastically reduced marriage rates and eroded American society.

The first step required to confront a problem is to get out of denial, and realize that you have a problem. Thanks to the work of scholars like Sara McLanahan, Isabel Sawhill, June Carbone, Naomi Cahn, and Andrew Cherlin, a growing number of family scholars, policymakers, and journalists now realize that we have a family problem in America. It is this: there is a growing marriage divide that leaves millions of men, women, and children in poor and working-class communities without ready access to the stability, emotional security, and financial resources marriage affords.

That this is a problem is no longer debatable. The retreat from marriage in working-class and poor communities across the United States hinders educational and economic opportunity, helps drive the crime rate higher in these communities, and exacts a serious social and emotional toll on children. It also—as Robert Lerman and I argue in a new report, “For Richer, For Poorer”—seems to account for almost one-third of the growth in family income inequality since the late 1970s.

To understand how to fix America’s family problem, we need an accurate diagnosis of it. Here, Andrew Cherlin’s magisterial “Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America” provides a cogent, concise, and largely compelling account of why marriage is floundering in working-class communities, and flourishing in more affluent, college-educated ones. His account shows that conservatives “who insist that family changes are wholly a matter of cultural shifts” are as wrong as progressives who insist that America’s family problem is simply a “matter of economics alone.” Instead, Cherlin deftly points out how shifts in the economy and the culture have together combined to undercut the health of marriage and the stability of family life in working-class communities across the country.

The Decline in Working-Class Jobs Has Genuinely Hurt Marriage


“Labor’s Love Lost” contends that progressives rightly insist that the decline of stable, good-paying jobs among less-educated Americans has played a major role in fueling the nation’s growing marriage divide. In particular, I was struck by the close empirical connection Cherlin draws (see his Figure 1.1, above) between the parallel fortunes of manufacturing jobs and marriage among the working class; as these jobs have risen and fallen, so too have marriage rates in the working class. Cherlin also eloquently describes how steady employment has afforded working-class men a sense of dignity and channeled their “behavior onto constructive paths.” Without access to decent-paying, stable jobs since the 1970s, working-class men are much less likely to be seen as attractive candidates for marriage, to act in ways that make them attractive candidates for marriage, and to stay married. So, score one for the Progressive view that “it’s the economy, stupid.”


Cherlin also suggests that “economic inequality” and “marriage inequality” may be causally linked, and here he is less convincing. That’s because—according to his own Figure 1.2 (see above)—the nation’s retreat from marriage began in the late 1960s, before income inequality started to surge in the late 1970s. Let me underline the point here: the causal ordering is off, since the retreat from marriage was well underway before dramatic increases in income inequality began. Indeed, the temporal ordering of these events is more consistent with the idea that the retreat from marriage helped to fuel the upsurge in income inequality in America.

A Morality Shift Has Also Hurt Marriage

But the story of “labor’s love lost” is not just about money. It’s also about mores. Here Cherlin tells a largely conservative story. He notes that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s—i.e., the sexual, feminist, and therapeutic revolutions of this tumultuous era—played a key role in making divorce, single parenthood, and nonmarital childbearing more acceptable to the public at large. Without the shifts in mores ushered in by these revolutions, the United States might have seen a decline in marriage rates in the last half-century, but it would not have seen the dramatic increase in family instability and single parenthood among the working class that it did. The Great Depression is instructive here, as Cherlin notes: “Despite a terrible job market in the 1930s, there was no meaningful rise in nonmarital childbearing because cultural norms had not changed.” So America’s family problem is not just about money, it’s about changes in mores that have weakened the links between lifelong marriage and parenthood.

America’s family problem is not just about money, it’s about changes in mores that have weakened the links between lifelong marriage and parenthood.

Another argument that is both explicit and implicit in Cherlin’s book—and that is both economic and cultural—is that the ties between masculinity, marriage, work, and providership have remained strong over the last century. Without necessarily endorsing it, Cherlin nods to an argument made by the anthropologist David Gilmore that prosocial masculinity has been connected in many cultures to marriage and providership, and has imposed a valuable “structure and discipline on men’s lives.” For working-class men in the United States, the routines and responsibilities of work and marriage, and the status of being a breadwinner, have afforded them an important sense of identity as men. By contrast, denied access to work that allows them to be good providers, men have often fallen prey to a kind of toxic masculinity—on full display in Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’ book, “Promises I Can Keep”—that is marked by behaviors like infidelity, substance abuse, or violence.

What’s more: I think the value of breadwinning continues to be salient for men and women down and up the class ladder in ways that stand in tension with another idea advanced by Cherlin, as well as by Carbone and Cahn, that one reason better-educated Americans are doing better is that they embrace a more egalitarian approach to life. Because, although college-educated Americans are more likely to embrace egalitarian family ideas in theory, in practice they typically live what might be called neo-traditional family lives that are about as gendered as those of their less-educated fellow citizens.


Notes: Based on data from the American Community Survey. Sample is restricted to married-couple households with at least one child under the age of 18.

Take breadwinning. In married families, in 2012, college-educated men with children in the home earned 70 percent of their family’s income, on average (see figure above). In less-educated homes, married men with children earned 72 percent of the income—not much of a difference in practical terms. Of course, in actual dollars, college-educated men bring a lot more to the family than do their less-educated peers: in 2012, on average they earned about $90,000, compared to the $41,000 that less-educated men earned. In both cases, in the average married family, men typically lead in providing for their families. Furthermore, even today, a recent study tells us that within “marriage markets, when a randomly chosen woman becomes more likely to earn more than a randomly chosen man, marriage rates decline.” All this suggests marriage remains quite connected to gendered patterns of breadwinning, down and up the social ladder.


Notes: Based on data from the American Community Survey. Sample is restricted to married-couple households with at least one child under the age of 18.

What Government and Cultural Institutions Can Do to Help Working-Class Families

From all this, I draw three important conclusions about the “fall of the working-class family” chronicled in “Labor’s Love Lost”: this fall has been driven by declines in stable, decent-paying work for less-educated men, larger cultural shifts away from a kind of marriage-centered familism, and the erosion of a kind of working-class prosocial masculinity connected to providership. This diagnosis, in turn, suggests the need for a range of policy and cultural initiatives to renew the fortunes of working-class family life in the twenty-first century.

On the policy front, the federal government should reinforce work and marriage in at least four ways, all of which would strengthen the economic foundations of marriage and family life in working-class communities:

Given the cultural character of the problem, we cannot limit our thinking to government solutions. On the cultural front, civic, religious, and cultural leaders and opinion makers should seek to renew marriage and family life in working-class America in the following three ways:

Efforts like these may seem quixotic. But without them, the possibility of reviving lifelong love in the laboring classes will be lost.

This article grows out of a symposium sponsored by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth on Andrew Cherlin’s new book, “Labor’s Love Lost,” and is reprinted from the Institute for Family Studies blog, with permission.

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