The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Beyond Culture and Economics

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The latest Census Bureau data indicate that U.S. marriage rates not only continue to decline but also reached historic lows in 2009, when only 52 percent of adults more than 18 years of age were currently married, down from 72.2 percent in 1960. Measured by the number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried women in a given year, the rate has dropped nearly 55 percent between 1970, when there were 76.5 marriages for every 1,000 unmarried women, and 2008, when there were 34.8. The retreat from wedlock seems particularly pronounced among the young. For the first time since the Census Bureau has tracked the numbers, never-married Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 (46.3 percent in 2009) outnumber their married peers (44.9 percent).

Seeking an explanation for this sea change in American behavior, Gary R. Lee and Krista K. Payne of Bowling Green State University reviewed the scholarly literature, only to find “culture” theories of marriage decline wanting. Often espoused by conservatives, these interpretations tend to see the advent of “expressive” or “secular” individualism—caused by increasing levels of income, education, and urbanization—as weakening Americans’ commitments to monogamy, family, and children. Or, as mothers used to warn their daughters about male suitors unwilling to commit, “If he can get the milk for free, why would he buy the cow?” The sociologists think this school of thought doesn’t explain the “marriage gap”—the collapse of marriage among the poorest and least educated Americans or the relatively higher incidence of marriage among educated Americans. Nor do they think the theory dovetails with polls showing that Americans continue to highly value marriage. Fair points.

But this leads the reviewers to follow the liberal herd that ignores culture and blames marriage decline on economicchange. This default position of the left starts with the claim that the disappearance of intact families in the inner city is due to the decline of manufacturing jobs, even as the former began a decade or two earlier than the later. Yet the Bowling Green team wants to expand this questionable construct to the working and middle classes. It is undoubtedly true that young men today, especially those without a college education, do not enjoy the same job prospects as their fathers did; the median annual earnings of men in their 30s peaked in 1975. The professors don’t dare mention this, but it is also true that the feminist assault on the “family wage,” as well as sex-based affirmative action, have contributed to those diminished prospects.

But the evidence Lee and Payne cite suggesting that the circumstances of young men is so “increasingly dismal” or “dire”—making marriage “economically unattainable” for increased numbers of Americans—is spotty at best. But they nonetheless conclude, “Many young adults who are cohabiting or remaining unpartnered well into their adult years are in fact acting in their own best interests.” The professors believe that the economy makes for marriage, not the other way around.

This is not their only flaw. Failing to look beyond culture and economics, the professors nowhere acknowledge the scholarship that connects the legal, judicial, and policy changes of the past generation to marriage decline. Had they, for example, looked at studies that measure the impact on marriage rates of the “expressive individualism” unleashed by Roe v. Wade (1973) or no-fault divorce laws during the same era, Lee and Payne might have written a more nuanced essay. And they would have not fallen victim to what Amy Wax calls “tired social science dogmas.”

(Gary R. Lee and Krista K. Payne, “Changing Marriage Patterns Since 1970: What’s Going On, and Why?” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 41.4 [Summer 2010]: 538–58.)