How Economic Inequality Is Turning Marriage on Its Head in America

How Economic Inequality Is Turning Marriage on Its Head in America
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

While modern conceptions of marriage would have you believe that its ups and downs are purely a function of love, it turns out that cold realities of cash play a significant role in romantic couplings.

Skyrocketing inequality in the United States is causing dramatic changes in the way people of different socioeconomic classes are contemplating whether or not its worth the commitment. According to an analysis at Reuters, in the 1980s, a high-school graduate was more likely to be married than a college graduate, but today the opposite is true: The top third of the income distribution is more likely to marry, and less money and education correlate with a decision to opt out.  

This chart from the Atlantic's Jordan Weissman breaks down men under the age of 40 who have never married based on income level. It shows higher incomes are generally linked with lower rates of perpetual bachelorhood (also note that all of these age groups grew up as the chasm between the poor and rich reached record highs): 


Why do people marry?: In the scheme of human history, the idea of romance as the force holding a marriage together is very recent, and a departure from the values that have underpinned it for millennia. While the institution has varied greatly across the world over time, broadly speaking marriage has been a social contract that serves purposes of maintaining or elevating social status; pooling labor and resources; providing clarity for asset ownership and legacy; and management of procreation and child-rearing. Today, love and companionship are championed as the engine of healthy marriage, but data on class and marriage illustrate that calculations about resources haven't become irrelevant. 

The switch between less and more affluent Americans' inclination toward marriage is a complex phenomenon steeped in many variables, but a critical part of the explanation lies in the increasingly widespread belief that marriage is expensive, and thus increasingly a luxury for those who fare better in the economy.

The exorbitant cost of engagement rings and weddings is the most obvious cost that springs to mind. The high expenses associated with the rituals of marriage pose a psychological obstacle to people who aren't comfortable with their financial situation.

But weddings have never been cheap, and poorer people still were willing to endure their costs before their downward trend in marriage rates. Furthermore, the increasing class-based difference in marriage rates is not just a function of the decision to marry but also lower divorce rates among the affluent. In other words, this is not only a matter of attempting marriage, but also a matter of staying within one.

A 2013 study entitled "Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape," suggests that marriage is simply more difficult to commit to for people with less financial security in an increasingly perilous economic landscape. People perceive matrimony as a practice that requires significant financial resources for upkeep; when they envision the future of their marriage, at least subconsciously many register the manner in which money helps with childcare, leisure, therapy, vacation, and the like. The prospect or existence of a bad marriage is seen not only an emotional drain, but a financial one.

"Working-class people with insecure work and few resources, little stability, and no ability to plan for a foreseeable future become concerned with their own survival and often become unable to imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others," said Sarah Corse, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and the study's lead author. "Insecure work changes peoples' non-work lives."

The precarity of life for the American worker has seeped from the workplace into the bedroom. 

In working- and middle-class America, the crisis of stagnant wages, the outsourcing of once-reliable jobs, a decrease in vital company benefits and the increasing cost of higher education makes marriage a more substantial commitment than for someone who has no need to worry about these constraints. People will less money are more likely to prioritize "financial security" as a reason to get married; if this security is lacking, so then is a good reason to have a spouse.  Companionship is valuable, but so is the psychological stability of being single — especially as a mother in communities that are likely to have higher rates of unemployment, drug use and abusive behavior among their male population.

Furthermore, in today's society it is possible to reap many of the vital benefits of marriage without being married. Living together and splitting the rent is now a relatively casual act for many couples, and having children out of wedlock is on the rise (for women as a whole, the median age for giving birth to a first child is now lower than the age at which they get married). In unstable households, the heavy promise of marriage is seen as adding more risk than benefit to such arrangements.

While it's a sign of a societal health that people don't trap themselves into lifeless marriages purely for the sake of fulfilling antiquated social norms, it's a sign of economic illness that working class people are increasingly averse to it for fear that they'll drown financially. The precarity of life for the American worker has seeped from the workplace into the bedroom. Maybe one day money will indeed buy you love.