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Marriage beyond reach of many working-class Americans

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© iStockphoto.com / Kris Hanke © iStockphoto.com / Kris Hanke
By Amy Norton
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Aug. 13 (HealthDay News) -- Job insecurity and uncertainty about the future may be a key part of what's keeping many working-class Americans from getting or staying married, a new study suggests.

Recent years have seen a big shift in the traditional American family. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, married couples now account for fewer than half of all U.S. households -- down from 78 percent in 1950.

But there are also clear economic divides. Women with college degrees, for example, are more likely to get married than women with only high school diplomas -- a stark reversal from years ago.

"It is definitely true that there is a class divide in marriage," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who studies trends in marriage and family.

"Working-class adults are postponing marriage and marrying later than they used to," Cherlin said. "Marriage also seems to be on the decline as a context for having children among the working class."

That's what's going on in the big picture. In the new study, researchers interviewed about 300 Americans -- both working- and middle-class -- to get a sense of how economics and education are swaying people's views on marriage.

They found that, in general, working-class men and women pointed to job insecurity, low wages and a lack of resources as deterrents to walking down the aisle. In short, they had a hard time imagining being able to provide for someone else -- financially or emotionally, according to Sarah Corse, one of the researchers in the study.

"It doesn't make sense to people to plan for the future if you don't even know if you'll have a paycheck," said Corse, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

The findings, scheduled to be reported Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City, offer some insight into why marriage is not the draw it used to be -- even though most Americans still say they want to get married at some point.

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The decision to take the plunge is not just a personal or moral issue, Corse said. And for many working-class people, the upsides of marriage are not as clear: Committing to someone with a low-paying job and a hefty debt, for example, may not seem like a wise decision.

"We need to think about how income inequality affects other types of inequalities," Corse said. "It's harder to choose to get married, or to sustain a marriage, if you the lack resources that many educated, middle-class people have."

Cherlin, who was not involved in the study, agreed. "In our new economy, working-class young adults often lack the resources to make a long-term marriage work, so they opt for short-term relationships instead," he said. "Marriage plays less of a role in the lives of high-school-educated Americans than among college-educated Americans."

In years past, Corse said, Americans without a college education could still get secure jobs that pay well, in areas like manufacturing. Now, she said, the opportunities often are in the service industry, where jobs may be low-paying, only part-time or offer no health insurance or other benefits.

One of the people Corse's team interviewed was Cindy, a middle-aged woman who'd spent her whole life in the same small Ohio town. Cindy told the researchers that when she was a child, her father had a stable manufacturing job and her family lived comfortably.

But by the time Cindy married, those jobs were largely gone, and her husband could not find steady work. He eventually deserted her, and she was left as a single mom with a minimum-wage job at a convenience store. Her daughter, now 20, never finished high school and lives with Cindy and Cindy's boyfriend.

Such live-in relationships are more common among working-class and high-school-educated Americans than those with higher education, Corse said.

"For middle-class people, marriage generally increases stability," she said "For the working class, it often doesn't."

And that means both financial and emotional stability. "If you can't handle your own problems," Corse said, "how can you take on someone else's? Marriage just doesn't look very appealing."

For her part, Cindy told the researchers she has no plans to marry her current boyfriend. (A second marriage ended in divorce after her husband began to physically abuse both her and her daughter.)

Cindy said she still hopes for a long-term, fulfilling relationship. But, she told the researchers, she is "not optimistic."

More information

The U.S. Census Bureau has more on national marriage trends.

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