[N.b. Divorce and social class is a hot topic of late. In June the NYT Magazine ran a story called “How Divorce Lost Its Cachet,” which talked about declining divorce rates among the affluent and well-educated. The following is a piece I wrote for a national magazine on the same topic. It didn’t end up running so I thought I’d publish it here.]
Is New York City the new family values capital of America? Data from the 2010 Census suggests it might be so. While marriage continues to wither in the heartland, the old “I do” has proven to be surprisingly resilient among the top tranche of American society: 69% of adults with a college degree are married today compared to 56% of adults without one (and New York County added college grads faster than any other county in the country over the last ten years). A generation ago marriage rates for the two groups were identical.
The marriage divide can be explained by a variety of factors but one of the most powerful is economic. Simply put, marriage pays for the well-educated denizens of Park Slope and the Upper West Side who get to combine two top-tier incomes in one townhouse while it’s an economic drag for folks in less-educated places like Oklahoma, which has one of the highest divorce rates in the country. Over the last twenty years the least attractive marriage partners, demographically speaking, have become men with only a high school education: Their real incomes fell 12% during a period when most everyone else’s was rising. Low-educated women, who a generation ago had a good shot of marrying up, find themselves stuck as college grads increasingly choose to marry each other. So when poor and working class women consider their remaining options, they conclude maybe they’re better off going it alone.
The near-term implications of these trends are troubling. Successful marriages correlate with all sorts of desirable outcomes, from better physical health to longer life expectancy, and the children of parents who either didn’t marry or didn’t stay married are at particular risk for repeating the pattern themselves. In this sense, marriage stands to join the mortgage interest tax deduction, private SAT tutors, and organic produce as another peg in the upper-middle class advantage.
In the longer run, though, the marriage divide might be just the thing to get Americans of all stripes in the marrying mood again. It’s no secret that marriage isn’t what it used to be in America: The decline of the cultural institutions that support marriage and the proliferation of no-fault divorce laws have led to a situation where for the first time married couples account for less than half the households in the country. Following that trend, a recent survey by the Research Center found that fewer than one-third of the members of the Millenial Generation view a successful marriage as one of the most important things in life.
But if tradition can no longer sustain marriage maybe its reincarnation as a high-status luxury good can. The upper echelons of American society have often acted as trendsetters in areas of parenting and family life, and New York, which managed to make flannel fashionable again, has led even more improbable cultural comebacks before.