Marriage Habits Reinforcing Class Structure

In a groundbreaking investigative report, the New York Times has found that it's easier to raise children if there are two parents and two incomes than one parent and one income.

In a groundbreaking investigative report, the New York Times has found that it’s easier to raise children if there are two parents and two incomes than one parent and one income. This. Changes. Everything.

Jason DeParle (“Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’“):

 Jessica Schairer has so much in common with her boss, Chris Faulkner, that a visitor to the day care center they run might get them confused.

They are both friendly white women from modest Midwestern backgrounds who left for college with conventional hopes of marriage, motherhood and career. They both have children in elementary school. They pass their days in similar ways: juggling toddlers, coaching teachers and swapping small secrets that mark them as friends. They even got tattoos together. Though Ms. Faulkner, as the boss, earns more money, the difference is a gap, not a chasm.

But a friendship that evokes parity by day becomes a study of inequality at night and a testament to the way family structure deepens class divides. Ms. Faulkner is married and living on two paychecks, while Ms. Schairer is raising her children by herself. That gives the Faulkner family a profound advantage in income and nurturing time, and makes their children statistically more likely to finish college, find good jobs and form stable marriages.

Ms. Faulkner goes home to a trim subdivision and weekends crowded with children’s events. Ms. Schairer’s rent consumes more than half her income, and she scrapes by on food stamps.

“I see Chris’s kids — they’re in swimming and karate and baseball and Boy Scouts, and it seems like it’s always her or her husband who’s able to make it there,” Ms. Schairer said. “That’s something I wish I could do for my kids. But number one, that stuff costs a lot of money and, two, I just don’t have the time.”

Having gone from the optimal to the suboptimal ratio of parents and incomes myself last November, I’m more profoundly aware of how true this is than before. But it was of course obvious even when I was single and childless.

There’s more to the story, though, than just the banal observation that more hands and more money are better than the alternative.

The economic storms of recent years have raised concerns about growing inequality and questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead. Most of the discussion has focused on labor market forces like falling blue-collar wages and lavish Wall Street pay.

But striking changes in family structure have also broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility. College-educated Americans like the Faulkners are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women like Ms. Schairer, who left college without finishing her degree, are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides, according to an analysis by Child Trends, a Washington research group. Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class — among women like Ms. Schairer who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

Married couples are having children later than they used to, divorcing less and investing heavily in parenting time. By contrast, a growing share of single mothers have never married, and many have children with more than one man.

“The people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers,” Ms. McLanahan said. “The people with less education are more likely to have complex, unstable situations involving men who come and go.”

She said, “I think this process is creating greater gaps in these children’s life chances.”

Again, at one level, this is a blinding flash of the obvious. Of course, all things being equal, married, educated, and successful is a better parenting model than single, ignorant, and broke. But the underlying trend, of successful people marrying other successful people while the less successful aren’t marrying at all is indeed worrisome. The former makes all the sense in the world. As an educated professional, I can attest that I have little interest in partnering with a woman who dropped out of school—or, rather, the type of woman who tends to drop out of school; a highly intelligent autodidact would be perfectly fine. It’s interesting, though, that those who deviate from the traditional path to success are now skipping marriage, too; that’s a relatively new trend.

This is quite related to this morning’s earlier discussion of America’s decreasing social mobility, which comes from elite parents being able to pass enormous advantages to their children and thus effectively creating barriers to entry to children of non-elites.

Hat tip: Jimmy SkyBridal couple with money image via Shutterstock.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Parenting, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dean says:

    “It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

    Clearly, Mr. Cherlin has no idea what the world “privileged” means.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Dean: That’s an odd charge to levy without explanation.

    I’ve generally found “privileged” to be a loaded term, since it presumes that one’s path was easy and, for many of us, it was not. Then again, even if one isn’t born into wealth, being born with above average intelligence or good lucks or athletic talent or any of the other characteristics that help make hard work turn into success is a form of privilege, too, in that it’s just as unearned.

  3. Just Me says:

    I think this makes a lot of sense-even if the desire is to say single parents can do it all, the reality is that a single parent is going to have to make more trade offs, and factoring in lower income chances are even more likely that the single parent is working not one but two jobs to make ends meet. Hard to have time for kids.

    College though-at least for the children of a professional single parent is going to be the goal and education a priority. I find, working in education in a low income district that a lot of kids don’t even consider the possibility of college.

  4. LC says:

    Seems to me that back in the Sainted 1950s, the Golden Era for Conservatives, it was the norm for a man – even a working class man – to support a wife and several children on one income. And I think the goal of many women was to marry up which worked out fine because men tended to marry down. But of course that was totally unrelated to the wage and salary structure of the time …

  5. al-Ameda says:

    Most of the NYT Report comes as no surprise – I certainly would not call it groundbreaking, however it was interesting.

    I agree with @Dean, the following is an interesting observation, it implies that marriage is a defining characteristic of privilege – I disagree. I think that class background, family wealth and income, and educational background (e.g. advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University) have more to do with privilege than marriage.

    “It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

    in the San Francisco Bay Area two-income families are the norm – among the middle class and the new upper middle class. Sometimes its strictly an economic necessity (e.g. the cost of housing), however much of the time it is because both parents are college educated and are maintaining careers. About 50-60 years ago it was far less likely that women were going to bear children and maintain a career.

  6. Tlaloc says:

    I often wonder why there is so much emphasis on the parent side of the parent:child ratio and not the the child side. Leaving out polyamory, the parent side is a binary state while the child side has effectively no limit.

    And yet we never hear condemnation of people who choose to have enormous families in the mainstream. Condemnation of single parents is less overt than it used to be but it is still ubiquitous. And yet people who continue pumping out child after child with little or no ability to care for them are generally shielded from criticism. Even the most stupidly extreme cases like the “octomom” where some condemnation is leveled are met with serious blowback against the critics for attacking her life choices and “right” to have kids.

    Seems odd when viewed in a vacuum. Of course it makes a lot more sense when viewed through a Christian prism.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Of what the article appears to think of as two problems, people with middle or upper incomes marrying other people earning middle or upper incomes and people with lower incomes not marrying at all, the former is not a problem at all but the norm, the expected, while the latter is a serious problem. What has changed is that we have taken the stigma from illegitimacy and from men walking away what had formerly been thought of as their responsibilities. When men and women engage in sexual activity it is no longer with the expectation of marriage should pregnancy result

    While I think that the hearts of those who wanted to destigmatize were in the right place, their views, which have prevailed, are problematic from a behavioral standpoint. It has been tremendously harmful to women from lower income families. There really is no substitute for social stigma. The consequences of rearing a child alone are tremendously different for women from higher income families than for women from lower income families. Celebrities and the daughters of the wealthy who elect to bear and rear their children alone are not good role models for most women.

  8. The NYT is way behind the work that the Brits have done on this, and their papers covering it. See, for example, The Telegraph.

  9. mjay says:

    No mention of changes in family law that make disaster a catastrophe for men, and, just like almost every article about marriage and family, the NYT piece has no male perspective, no perspective on why men are avoiding marriage in these situations.

    As a divorced guy who spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to see my kids, I can tell you, marriage has evolved to become a huge wealth transfer system to funnel men’s money to women and to the assorted parasites that thrive in the divorce industry.

    There is no due process in family court, and anti-male feminist thinking rules the day among the therapists, counselors and other jackals that infect the court.

    As an upper middle class guy in California, I see no benefit to remarrying and if I had sons, I would counsel them to put off marriage as long as possible. Marriage is for women, who, once they have secured an income source, can bleed him dry on demand while holding their children hostage in a scenario where the lawyers, therapists and other parasites all nod, smiling.

  10. jd says:

    @James Joyner: I thought it was humor: the truly privileged don’t have to get married.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @mjay: Angry much?

  12. Moderate Mom says:

    It’s not just the removal of stigma, it’s the removal of responsibility. Certain segments of the male population think that more children is proof of more virility. I see it every day and deal with it every pay period, when we have to withhold the court ordered child support payments we forward to Juvenile Court.

    What I don’t understand is the woman that voluntarily has sex with a man she knows already has multiple children by multiple “baby mamas” and does so without regard to the possible consequences, or without using a method of birth control for that matter. I guess stupidity knows no bounds.

  13. Rick Almeida says:


    I cannot imagine how or why your marriage ended.

  14. Just Me says:

    What has changed is that we have taken the stigma from illegitimacy and from men walking away what had formerly been thought of as their responsibilities.

    I think this is in reality a huge part of the problem.

    Somehow shame has been pushed aside and now having children out of the bounds of marriage, or having multiple children with multiple partners is accepted.

  15. Michael Robinson says:

    I blame Murphy Brown.

  16. @OzarkHillbilly:

    There is some legitimacy to mjay’s point. Before two people can get into a real relationship and marry, they have to meet. When filtering total strangers to introduce yourself too, the ugly truth is that filtering is likely to be based on very shallow bases. And if you come across someone significantly futher down on the economic ladder, there’s always going to be some concern whether their interest is sincere or they’re just interested in your wealth. Thus must people tend to only consider people of roughly the same means as them as a way of reducing this risk.

  17. Dennis Metz says:

    having two working parents that can support their kids is a heck of a lot better than having these thugs running around breeding everythign that spreads its legs while collecting free contraceptaviews and selling them for crack. bottom line is what do you expect to happen to kids raised in family of 6 to 18 where the men run around making babies with multiple hoes and forcing the taxpayer to support them with new schools prisions and child care and college for the mammas

  18. Sean says:

    Am I the only one embarrassed for the boss? She’s forcing her neighbors to subsidize her labor costs via public assistance programs for her employees:

    Ms. Faulkner goes home to a trim subdivision and weekends crowded with children’s events. Ms. Schairer’s rent consumes more than half her income, and she scrapes by on food stamps.

    How depressing. And sneaky.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @Sean: We don’t know what industry they’re in. The story says the boss makes more money than the employee, but not by much. So, presumably, the boss would be in the same pickle were she not married.

    I’m actually somewhat surprised Schairer qualifies for food stamps even though she owns a house and clearly has money for various extracurricular activities for the kids. And tattoos!

  20. Sean says:

    @James Joyner: That assumes she and not her boss paid for the tattoo. But having recently encountered someone who both bragged about his new high-rise condo and how many people he employs – at precisely minimum wage, never more – I am concerned with this devious method of corporate welfare. This person I encountered explicitly refuses to pay his employees more than he’s legally required or promote them, ever. He views everyone in his call centers as disposable. And he thinks giving his employees a guide on how to apply for public assistance is a shrewd, yet entirely ethical business practice that entitles him to keep more of his business’ profits for himself. Yes, he identifies as Republican.

    Seeing the mention of a similar situation in the article set off major alarm bells.

  21. Just Me says:

    I’m actually somewhat surprised Schairer qualifies for food stamps even though she owns a house and clearly has money for various extracurricular activities for the kids. And tattoos!

    I think they have certain formulas and a lot varies by state but owning a house doesn’t automatically disqualify you. Also, if she makes about $10 an hour, and has 2 or more kids she probably would easily qualify for assistance.

    I also think the current trends all but require two earner families, especially in occupations that aren’t high paying but combined with a similar income make for a decent living. Halve that though-and have a one parent home, making ends meet becomes difficult to impossible.

  22. mjay says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The reality is that marriage is a three way partnership between two people and the State, with the local government determining the distribution of assets and child custody if a child is born, even if there is no marriage.

    Most people don’t realize the reality of these laws, and men are denounced as “bitter” when pointing them out.

    In CA, until recently, a woman who convicted of hiring a hit man to kill her husband was still eligible for a man’s pension benefits upon his death.

    Nationally, a female child molester who gets pregnant from her victim is automatically due child support from the boy, whose parents will be dunned for payments if he has no income.

    Men who have been stationed in Iraq whose wives filed for divorce (which technically they are not able to do, but judges ignore the UCMJ statutes preventing it) are not notified of the fact and find their kids put up for adoption if the mother becomes incapacitated.

    Men are imprisoned for years without evidence if a family court finds them in contempt, a court where you do not have the right to an attorney, as marital dissolution is considered a civil matter.

    If you pay too much attention to your wife, that is considered “emotional abuse”, as is not paying enough attention to her, as defined by the CDC. Both constitute “domestic violence”.

    Most people are utterly ignorant of the vagaries of family law and respond with disbelief when they learn about the details, as some of the posters here have done.