Why Are Working-Class Families Comparatively Fragile Today?

05 Oct 2017

“Poor and working-class Americans pay a serious economic, social and psychological price for the fragility of their families,” concludes new research for the Opportunity America-AEI-Brookings Working-Class Group.

STI Experts

Another new study documents the increasing class divide in America in areas beyond income.  “The Marriage Divide: How and Why Working Class Families Are More Fragile Today” demonstrates trends in family structure over the last several decades, and concludes that “poor and working class Americans pay a serious economic, social and psychological price for the fragility of their families.” 

Until the latter third of the 20th century, families looked more or less the same regardless of income. At the beginning of the 1970s, a majority of adults in all classes were married, and most children lived in stable, two-parent households. But first the poor and then the working class began to get and remain married less and less. These trends have snowballed since, resulting in today’s marked class divide in terms of family stability.

For the purposes of this study, which focuses on adults between the ages of 18 and 55, the poor are defined as the bottom quintile of earners, and/or those without a high school diploma.  The working class are defined as those with incomes between the 20th and the 50th percentile and a high school but not a university degree. The middle and upper class are those above the 50th percentile of wage earners with university degrees.

First and foremost, a majority of middle- and upper-class Americans are married today (56%), compared to 39 percent of the working class, which is in turn a far larger percentage than the 26 percent of poor Americans who are married. The researchers note that the percentages for the two lower groups would be even lower if immigrants (who are more likely to be married, less likely to divorce, and more fecund than the native-born population) were excluded from the study.

Poor and working-class Americans are also more likely (three times and two times, respectively) than the wealthier and better-educated classes to cohabitate instead of marrying.  Previous studies like the 2017 World Family Map report “The Cohabitation Go-round” have demonstrated that cohabiting unions are less stable than marriages. Furthermore, divorce is more common among poor and working class adults than among the higher classes. Add these facts to higher rates of non-marital childbearing among the less advantaged (children born to poor mothers are 5 times more likely to be born out of wedlock than those born to mothers in the top 50% of income distribution), and the result is that children in the lower two groups are significantly less likely to reach the age of 14 in an intact home with their two biological parents (55% versus 77%). “This family divide,” concludes the report, “often leaves poor and middle-class men, women and children doubly disadvantaged: They have more fragile families and fewer socio-economic resources.”

The report goes on to examine the causes of these unequal situations. The authors point to data showing that there was no increase in divorce or non-marital childbearing during the economic hardship of the Depression, nor did the trend away from marriage slow down during the economic boom of the 1990s. They conclude from this that economic factors are not enough to explain the trends. In fact, they claim, “shifts in the culture weakened marriage before shifts in the economy directly affected working-class families.”  Among these shifts in the economy is the move to a post-industrial economy that increased unemployment among less-educated men. Yet the trend away from marriage began before this unequally distributed rise in unemployment.

The report further cites numerous disadvantages faced by the poorer classes that have rendered them more vulnerable to cultural upheaval. For example: Homeownership among the wealthier classes gives them more of an economic stake in marriage; Poor and working-class families’ greater dependence on the State for material support leaves them more affected by social welfare policies that undercut marriage; and decreased participation in civic institutions – both religious and secular, is more exaggerated in the lower classes.

“In sum, the nation’s marriage divide is rooted in economic, cultural, policy and civic changes that undercut the normative, financial and communal bases of strong and stable marriages and families in poor and working-class communities across America.”