How Did Marriage Become a Mark of Privilege?

A big reason for the decline: Unemployed men are less likely to be seen as marriage material.

“Women don’t want to take a risk on somebody who’s not going to be able to provide anything,” said Sharon Sassler, a sociologist at Cornell who published “Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships” with Amanda Jayne Miller last month.

As marriage has declined, though, childbearing has not, which means that more children are living in families without two parents and the resources they bring.

“The sharpest distinction in American family life is between people with a bachelor’s or not,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins and author of “Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America.”

Just over half of adolescents in poor and working-class homes live with both their biological parents, compared with 77 percent in middle- and upper-class homes, according to the research brief, by W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang of the Institute for Family Studies. Thirty-six percent of children born to a working-class mother are born out of wedlock, versus 13 percent of those born to middle- and upper-class mothers.

The research brief defined “working class” as adults with an adjusted family income between the 20th and 50th percentiles, with high school diplomas but not bachelor’s degrees. Poor is defined as those below the 20th percentile or without high school diplomas, and the middle and upper class as those above the 50th percentile or with college degrees.

Americans across the income spectrum still highly value marriage, sociologists have found. But while it used to be a marker of adulthood, now it is something more wait to do until the other pieces of adulthood are in place — especially financial stability. For people with less education and lower earnings, that might never happen.

College graduates are more likely to plot their lives methodically — vetting people they date until they’re sure they want to move in with them, and using birth control to delay childbirth until their careers are underway.

Less educated people are more likely to move in with boyfriends or girlfriends in a matter of months, and to get pregnant at a younger age and before marriage. This can make financial and family stability harder to achieve later on.

“It starts with moving in together quickly, for economic exigency reasons as opposed to…

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