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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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