How income inequality is ruining marriage

Republicans want to claim that marriage can solve inequality. In truth, they're entirely missing the point

Topics: AlterNet, Marriage, Income inequality, Republican Party, Conservatives,

How income inequality is ruining marriage (Credit: ollyy via Shutterstock)

Conservatives have suddenly discovered that inequality exists and poverty is a problem. Why? So they can bring back their favorite solution: marriage. They argue that marriage will solve the woes of the poor without admitting that there are only two ways to bring back higher rates of marriage: take on inequality directly or intensify the war on the women. The first would go against their core belief that everyone really deserves their economic positions, while the second is not advisable so close to an election.

It’s so much more convenient to blame marriage-hating liberals.

Take Ross Douthat’s recent New York Timescolumn. In typical Douthat fashion, he spends the first two-thirds of the column establishing grounds that most of us who study the family might endorse. He concedes that the lack of jobs and mass imprisonment might in fact have something to do with family instability. He even agrees that “certain kinds of redistribution — especially if tied to wage-earning — might help make men more marriageable, families more stable, and touch off a virtuous interaction between the financial and the personal.”

Then, just when you’re taken in, the knife is unsheathed and we learn that the real problem, after all, is the liberal disdain for marriage. If only the elite had not sneered at the need to marry — as the better response to an unplanned pregnancy than abortion, as the necessary solution to guide blue-collar men and women into the “right” families because they certainly can’t decide for themselves — we would all be better off.

To support this claim, conservatives invoke a widely admired 1996 paper by economists Janet Yellen (now head of the Fed) and Nobel Prize-winner George Akerlof that looked at the change in non-marital births in the ’70s and ’80s. Akerlof and Yellen argued that the availability of contraception and abortion contributed to an increase in the percentage of non-marital births among poor women. They found that overall, contraception and abortion led to a decline in thenumber of inopportune pregnancies, particularly among teens, but they also led to a decline in shotgun marriages. Since women could choose whether to use birth control or abort, men no longer felt they needed to marry the women they impregnated.



The problem is that the paper and Douthat’s analysis are rooted in the ’80s, before the wholesale erosion of blue-collar wages and employment stability and the acceleration of mass imprisonment. It’s true that the advent of contraception and abortion contributed to the declining stigma associated with women’s non-marital sexuality and many of us say good riddance. Today, however, women have joined men in giving up on the shotgun marriage and even Catholic clergy refer to it an “outdated joke.” The reason? Marriages prompted by youthful exuberance or an unplanned pregnancy are at a high risk of divorce, a divorce rate exacerbated by societal inequality.

Here’s why.

The first reason is the continuing influence of gender expectations, expectations that social conservatives seek to reinforce. Studies indicate that traditional expectations of male and female roles are more deeply ingrained as one moves down the socio-economic ladder. A man is not a real man if he can’t earn more than his wife.

But the likelihood that a husband earns more than the wife corresponds to class: in families with dual earners, the wife earns more than the husband in 70 percent of marriages in the bottom quintile of families, in comparison with 34 percent of wives in families with incomes in the top 20 percent.

And the men don’t respond well. Similar studies show the more income a woman earns, the less housework she does—until she earns more than the man in her life, then she does more housework. Sociologists like Paul Amato and his colleagues found in their book Alone Together(2009) that while college-educated dual earners have increased their level of marital quality since 1980, dual-earner working-class couples have become more divorce-prone precisely because the women do not like bringing home the bacon and cooking it. Journalist Hanna Rosin quotes one young woman, who explained why she had no interest in staying with the father of her child, “Calvin just means one less granola bar for the two of us.”

The second reason is a bit more complex. Cross-cultural studies show that when men outnumber women in a given marriage market, marriage rates increase for both men and women. The women pick the “best” men; that is, the men with a combination of good jobs and good behavior. The men in turn invest more in being marriageable and more in their children. In today’s economy, the women who invest in their own earnings and postpone marriage and childbearing until the late 20s move into a more elite marriage market, one where men with high wages are eager to pair with the smaller number of similarly successful women. The top 10 percent of women by income is the only major group whose marriage rates have held steady. Indeed, between 1982 and 2006, college graduates, black or white, became more likelyto raise their children in a two-parent family.

Everywhere else, though, marriageable women outnumber the men. As Douthat concedes, chronic unemployment and mass incarceration have made a high percentage of men unmarriageable. The economy further skews the way men and women match up, with more men than women among the winners at the top of the economic ladder and more men among those who have lost ground leaving more women in the middle. As a practical matter, this means that women outnumber men in the relationship markets everywhere outside the relatively elite. Sociologists find that when this happens, men become more likely to play the field, women give up on the men and relationship quality inside and outside of marriage suffers.

In short, as we explain in our forthcoming book, Marriage Markets: How Inequality Has Remade the American Family, the greater inequality in society changes norms, the norms conservatives purport to care about. The women, particularly those burned by the shotgun marriage that predictably didn’t work, the seemingly great guy with two other women on the side, the Calvins of the world who don’t earn their keep, find that they gain more by investing in themselves.

The only way to change this picture without changing the economy is to bring back the Scarlet Letter and that’s what the conservative war on women has always been about—making it harder for independent women to say no to the underperforming men in their lives.  The much more effective solution is to bring back hope: hope for a better future, better jobs and better relationships. The secret to creating that greater hope is to address inequality directly.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...