As the middle class morphs, so does the idea of marriage

Keith and Emelia Stark admit their marriage isn’t a typical one – Keith has 19 years on his 23-year-old bride – but in most ways, they’re cut from the same cloth as other newlyweds in their social class.

Both are college graduates. Keith is a software engineer and Emelia, a production accountant for some of the films shooting in the state in recent years. They just bought a house in Canton, a suburb of Detroit. They have no children yet, but hope to. And their wedding in October 2012 featured a long white dress, a band for dancing and a reception at Waldenwoods in Hartland – “nice and classy and special,” Emelia describes it.

It’s no wonder that after a year, they’re still cooing like lovebirds. Marriage is working for them.

In this, they are quite representative of the changing dynamics of marriage. The institution, counselors, sociologists and family demographers say, is increasingly becoming a class marker. The more solidly middle-class you are, the more likely you are to get married and stay married. And as the middle class has dwindled in recent years, so too has the marriage rate.

The research is widely accepted: Since 2000, marriage rates among young adults 25-34 dropped sharply, accelerating during the recession. What’s more, marriage trends are now closely tied to education achievement: The Census Bureau’s 2010 Current Population Survey data “show that those with only a high school diploma (or less) have experienced a steep decline in marriage during the past decade. In contrast, marriage rates have held fairly steady for those with at least a bachelor's degree,” wrote Mark Mather and Diana Lavery for the Population Reference Bureau.

In Michigan, the marriage rate fell nine percentage points in the 2000-2009 period Mather and Lavery examined.

Pamela Smock, a family demographer and professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, has been studying this subject throughout her career.

“One thing we have to keep in mind: Marriage is becoming more unnecessary,” she said. “Forty percent of children are born outside of marriage, more people are cohabitating. Marriage is not the major place for children anymore.”

Unless, she adds, you are middle or upper-middle class: “Those people are hanging on to marriage as the foundation for family life.”

This marriage/class gap draws many to believe marriage itself is an antipoverty program; the Heritage Foundation, among other conservative groups, advocate for the institution itself as a shield against child poverty. Smock acknowledges this argument has some merit, but believes those making it have the cause and effect backward.

“That argument is that marriage causes the best outcomes for your children,” she said. “That if you get people who are poor to marry, it would solve a lot of problems. But things don’t work like that. People who have better economic prospects are more likely to get married. You couldn’t take two poor, unemployable people and marry them and lift them out of poverty.”

Keith and Emelia, for instance, are examples of marriage’s benefits. Emelia’s work on film productions is by definition a series of temporary jobs, but she can rely on Keith’s steady paycheck to carry them in between. He has encouraged her to pay off her student loans, which she is doing on an accelerated schedule. She is carried on his employer-paid health insurance. All will help them do well in the future, and make their marriage not just a partnership, but a shelter for both.

“Most women without college degrees aren’t marrying men with them,” said Sarah Corse, who recently presented the paper “Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape,” to the American Sociological Association. The self-selection of the educated to marry other educated people helps sustain middle-class status, obviously, but it also makes class mobility harder.

“When people say, ‘you should get married, it raises your status,’ they’re assuming middle-class jobs, which not everyone has,” Corse said. Her paper, co-authored with Jennifer Silva, states that “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.”

The collapse of the working-class jobs base, combined with changing social attitudes about non-marital childbearing, have redefined marriage for many, Corse said, adding this cuts both ways.

“On the one hand, people aren’t shamed because they’re not married. Their kids aren’t called ‘bastards.’ ...Absent the stigma of having children out of wedlock or living together, there has to be a reason to get married, instead of a reason not to. The presumption used to be that you would get married, and as soon as you had a serious boy- or girlfriend, you married them. Now, there’s no presumption. It’s just another choice,” she said.

And yet, old rituals don’t disappear overnight, or in a generation. Smock, in her research, said she often ran across working-class couples who were co-habitating, who might even have children together, who still said they couldn’t get married because “they couldn’t afford to.”

“If they weren’t able to save $5,000 for a wedding, they believed it was out of reach,” Smock said. “They talked about how marriage represented buying a house, basically having a lawn and picket fence. ...They would say, ‘I don’t want to just go downtown or to the justice of the peace.’ “

Part of this is consumerism, she said, but it was also a respect for the ceremony of making the commitment.

“I got the sense that they wanted their whole family to come in and be there and help witness this,” Smock said.

In that sense, less-affluent couples are no different from their wealthier counterparts, said Bob Cornwall, pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, in Metro Detroit.

Cornwall’s congregation tends to be college-educated or working toward a degree. But the single most important thing about their bonds is whether they can have the wedding they want.

“I’m seeing delay of marriage. Couples will live together for years to save up to have the wedding,” he said. “The ceremony is almost irrelevant. The dress is important, the flowers, all that. And the big thing is the party afterward.

“First they get the (reception) hall, and once that is booked, then they go looking for a person and place to do the service.”

Cornwall, married 30 years, has attended and officiated at many weddings that were followed by simple punch and cake in a church basement. He believes the changes are partly driven by the cultural static of consumerism – reality shows about weddings, bridal magazines, the need to show off wealth to one's friends and family.

“But the other part is that the way we understand sexual relationships has changed,” he said. “We once had the expectation that your wedding night was your first sexual experience. “

Obviously, it wasn’t for many people, even in past generations, he said, “but once you got serious about someone, you got married. Whatever you could afford, you did. You might start out in a little teeny apartment, but you were married.

“Now it’s like you should have it all in place – house, secure job, money for the wedding. ‘Now I’m ready.’”

Corse echoes Cornwall: “The community has redefined what the ritual is. It’s not your parents and your church, lifting you into the next stage of your life. The ritual is that it’s ‘your day,’ and a presentation and expression of self. It’s the consumption that is the thing itself.”

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Tue, 09/17/2013 - 9:55am
What the article fails to mention is that many people choose not to marry not because they can not afford the wedding but because they would lose their government assistance... Single mothers get a lot more help than married mothers since benefits are based on family income. So getting married hurts them financially I think it is less about social stigma. People are already living together and raising children together why get married if they are going to loss governement assistance and benefits.
Tue, 09/17/2013 - 11:19am
Because it's WRONG and FRAUDULENT.
Nancy Derringer
Tue, 09/17/2013 - 11:23am
Cheri, Thanks for commenting. Smock wasn't responding specifically to the Heritage Foundation report in her comment, but to the belief that marriage *in and of itself* can improve one's economic status. Sorry for any confusion.
Tue, 09/17/2013 - 10:53am
“That argument is that marriage causes the best outcomes for your children,” she said. “That if you get people who are poor to marry, it would solve a lot of problems. But things don’t work like that. People who have better economic prospects are more likely to get married. You couldn’t take two poor, unemployable people and marry them and lift them out of poverty.” Pam Smock couldn't have misinterpreted the intention of the Heritage Foundation any worse than with this idiotic statement.
Tue, 09/17/2013 - 12:52pm
Right on Cheri. It is undeniably true that if you graduate from high school, are married before you get pregnant and stay married, you only have a small chance of being in poverty. But it is no doubt true that there are character traits that are responsible for both these achievements and staying out of poverty. It is unlikely that if two people without the requisite character traits will improve their situation by the mere act of getting married.
Wed, 09/18/2013 - 12:57am
Cheri, There are many reasons for children to have married parents then simply their economic status. Senator Moynihan back when the 'war on poverty' began predicted the decline of the family unit with the government paying more to the single parent than to the married parents. He seems to have been proven right that when you only focus on the economics of the family and ignore the social importance of the family you undermine the family.
Tue, 09/17/2013 - 1:48pm
Ms. Smock is mistaken when she says, “One thing we have to keep in mind: Marriage is becoming more unnecessary,Forty percent of children are born outside of marriage, more people are cohabitating. Marriage is not the major place for children anymore.” College educated individuals do get, and stay, married. And they are markedly more economicaly successful. And the children of those marriages do much better. Ms. Corse makes the remarkable statement: " The self-selection of the educated to marry other educated people helps sustain middle-class status, obviously, but it also makes class mobility harder." So, does she contend that more capable, prudent people shouldn't do those things that are likely to make them, and their children, happier, more secure and successful in order to lessen inequality? Wouldn't it be preferable for others to emulate their strategies? The late, great Senator Daniel Moynihan noticed this impulse years ago. He called it "defining deviancy down." I know some people elevate equality above everything else, but is that wise?
V. Dickieson
Tue, 09/17/2013 - 4:04pm
I find that there are a couple of topics missed in the preceeding comments. (1) The availability of birth control which was not so available in other generations. (2) Women can be financially independent and therefore do not need to have a spouse to provide what is considered necessary. (3) Separating does not cost anything financially although it cetainly can cost emotionally. (4) A change in values causes little stigma for those living together.
Mme DeFarge
Wed, 09/18/2013 - 12:55am
Just wondering why there is no comment or even mention of the advantages of marriage when it comes to inheritance, rights of survivorship, the ability to make medical decisions for -- even have access to -- an injured/ailing partner, child custody and division of property in the event of divorce, etc. Were these not included in the Corse-Silva paper? Perhaps middle/upper class people appreciate the legal ramifications of marriage (possibly because they have more to lose?) in protecting their families and property. How silly that wasting money on a big party (which they could throw anyway) has overtaken the sensible choices that are so much more important.
Jon Blakey
Wed, 09/18/2013 - 8:17am
I think everyone is underestimating the effects of poverty on all types of decision making and choices. I get very tired of listening to people blame impoverished people for the lack of decent paying jobs, access to quality mental health services, good public transportation, schools with adequate funding and competent policy makers, support for intact families, and the list goes on and on. I also feel marriage is vastly overrated as a source of family stability. Single parents and partners living together can be just as committed and effective in raising children if they have access to stable earnings and social support systems that we seem hell bent on destroying.
Thu, 09/19/2013 - 9:20pm
Jon, Have you ever heard of people succeeding lifting themselves out of poverty or do you believe once a person is poor they will always be 'poor' because you logic seems to suggest the latter. The current most public example of where your logic falters is Dr. Ben Carson who was born and raised by an illiterate mother in Detroit and became a world renowned pediatric surgeon. Rather then presume that poverty is an insurmountable barrier I would am more interested in how those who succeed over coming it were able to do it (the how and why interests me). I know of people that have been very successful coming from a single parent family, but by all indications the success rate of children is better from a complete family. I believe it is better to promote what is more likely to provide success then encourage or justify what contributes barriers to success. In my family my wife and I provided different prespectives for our children they were able to complement their learning, the availablity of parental time was more which seem to help them. Even today they will call each of us for different things as they see we have a diversity of strengths they draw on. In my limited experience a whole family seems less burdensome to the children and the parents then one that is in seperate parts.
Fri, 09/20/2013 - 12:20pm
Jon - agreed. Nancy - well done.
Thu, 09/26/2013 - 6:53am
Love, Commitment, Forgiveness, Security of knowing there is a family who supports you. This is what children should learn at home. Then these human needs continue out to the extended family, neighbors, your church and the rest of your community. I am not sure how not fulfilling the basic need of a nuclear family effects people, but I know children who have been emotionally upset even by rifts between their nuclear family and grandparents,aunts and uncles: wondering what it would take for them to be cut off from love and forgiveness, too: creating insecurity. Relationships are not easy, but life long commitments to love and forgivenss are important if we want to teach our children that people (including our children) are not disposable.