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 

As Marriage Goes, So Goes the Middle Class

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Forty-five years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned about the pending collapse of the African-American family. In more recent years scholars, including two who serve on this journal’s editorial board, have been warning about the collapse of marriage among the American middle class. Five years ago Kay Hymowitz coined the phrase “marriage-gap” that separates college-educated Americans, who are more likely to form lasting marriages, from those without high-school education, who are less likely. Now comes W. Bradford Wilcox, in conjunction with the National Marriage Project and the New York-based Institute for American Values, with a report that quantities the ways in which the state of matrimony today among “moderately educated” Americans—those with little more than a high-school education and who represent 58 percent of the adult population—is in serious trouble.

“Wherever we look among communities that make up the bedrock of the American middle class—whether small-town Maine, the working-class suburbs of southern Ohio, the farmlands of rural Kansas, or the factory town of North Carolina—the data tell the same story: Divorce is high, nonmarital childbearing is spreading, and marital bliss is in increasingly short supply,” the report notes. While 17 percent of highly educated Americans, ages 25–44, agree that marriage has not worked out for most people they know, 43 percent of the moderately educated say the same.

The 106-page report explores the irony (and tragedy) of how the working-middle class, even though it remains modestly more socially conservative in sentiments than college-educated Americans, experiences more family-breakup behaviors—including adultery, divorce, and unwed childbearing—than the college-educated, who are more likely to express liberal family attitudes but have been able to shield themselves from family breakup. Even as Wilcox and his colleagues believe that middle-class Americans have grown more socially permissive since the 1970s (while their college-educated peers have grown less socially permissive), they still are more likely to believe that divorce should be more difficult to obtain (50 to 48 percent) and that premarital sex is always wrong relative to college-educated Americans (25 to 21 percent). Although the report doesn’t mention these indicators, the middle class would likely be more decidedly opposed, relative to the college-educated, to maintaining unrestricted abortion license as well as to the drive to change the legal definition of marriage to suit the liberal imagination.

One key difference between unmarried Americans with a high-school education and their more-pedigreed peers is their use of contraception, with the former decidedly more wary of allowing chemical or mechanical barriers to intrude upon natural processes than the latter. Whereas just 35 percent of moderately educated, unmarried Americans use birth control “all the time,” a good majority (55 percent) of highly educated, unmarried Americans do. This may help explain why a smaller portion of adolescent men with moderately-educated mothers (61 percent) would be embarrassed if they got their girlfriends pregnant than their peers with highly-educated mothers (76 percent).

While the report may overstate the degree to which “the American educational elite is now turning, at least in some ways, toward a marriage-centered mindset,” it nonetheless explains why the retreat from marriage among the middle class “is placing the American Dream beyond the reach of too many Americans.” Hopefully this time around, Bradford Wilcox will gain a better hearing than did Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965.

(W. Bradford Wilcox, ed. “When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America,” The National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, December 2010.)