CBLPI Marriage Characteristic of Educated Elite

by Lil Tuttle

Is marriage becoming a characteristic unique to the educated elite class? A new status symbol of the successful?  It appears so.  In 1960, almost 75% of all Americans over 18 were married. In 2010, about half were married. Only one group has defied the declining marriage rates, writes Anne Kim in Washington Monthly.

But the seeming decline of marriage includes one major caveat: educated elites. When it comes to marriage, divorce, and single motherhood, the 1950s never ended for college-educated Americans, and for college-educated women in particular.

According to the researchers Shelly Lundberg, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Robert Pollak, of Washington University in St. Louis, the share of young college-graduate white women who were married in 2010 was a little over 70 percent—almost exactly the same as it was in 1950.

College-educated white women are, moreover, half as likely as other women to be divorced, according to Steven Martin of the University of Maryland, and they are also refusing single motherhood. Fewer than 9 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree or more had an unwed birth in 2011— a level barely higher than what it was for all women in 1950.

As marriage declined, unwed motherhood grew.  A mere 7.9% of all births were to unwed mothers in 1950; in 2013, it was 41%. As the Heritage Foundation chart shows, the less educated women are, the more likely they are to have a child outside of marriage.  These single-parent children will be deprived of the well-documented social, educational, and economic advantages that children of married parents enjoy.

Heritage Foundation - Marriage Chart

Kim discusses several theories put forth by scholars studying why educated elites’ continue to marry at 1950 rates and have high expectations for their children.

  • Elite Americans are deliberately marrying for the “advantages it confers on their children in an increasingly competitive economy” – what Kim calls “the ultimate in helicopter parenting;” or
  • Elite Americans still marry for romantic reasons and “higher-achieving kids are a by-product of it;” or
  • Elite Americans are economically better off and marriage has become an indicator of success for them.

As the sociologist Andrew Cherlin described this aspirational view, marriage is now the “capstone,” not the cornerstone, of people’s lives. “Marriage has become a status symbol—a highly regarded marker of a successful personal life,” Cherlin wrote in the New York Times.

The simplest explanation, suggests Kim, “is that the 1950s did not, in fact, ever end for them economically.” Incomes of college grads rose significantly faster over the decades than incomes of high school grads, resulting in an earnings gap nearly three times greater in 2013 than in 1965.

Regardless of why, “as the class divide in marriage grows,” writes the author, “elites are compounding the advantages of their status, especially for their kids.”

Since the release of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s now-famed report on the breakdown of black families in 1965, researchers have amassed a growing mountain of evidence that family structure and marriage matter. … ”There’s no argument about what’s best for kids,” says the economic and social policy expert Ron Haskins, of the Brookings Institution. “It’s to be reared in a stable household by married parents.”

If not reversed, the marriage divide will create an ever-growing gulf between the haves and have nots.

Yes, But What Can Be Done?

The time may have come for “major” public policy intervention to reverse the marriage trends, argues Kim, although she does not speculate on what those interventions might be.

It took decades to arrive to this point, and it will no doubt take decades to reverse the marriage decline. Yet there are some public policy reforms that would at least stop discouraging marriage, as current policy does particularly for the less educated, lower income families.

Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC)

Congress could end the “marriage penalty,” for example, in the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC, notes the Tax Foundation, “is a major driver of marriage penalties for low-income individuals.”

One case study cited: if two people each earning $15,000 marry and claim one child, the EITC benefit for the ‘married’ family would be reduced from $1,594 to $506—a loss of $1,088. Such a loss is substantial for a family of 3 with a total income of $30,000.

Federal Welfare Systems

Policymakers could also undertake a overdue comprehensive review of existing welfare programs that, in practice, reward unmarried parents and penalize married parents.

It is not coincidental that the rate of unwed childbearing has grown in tandem with federal War on Poverty programs. “When the War on Poverty began,” writes Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, “36% of poor families with children were headed by single parents. Today, the figure is 68 percent.”

In terms of economic support, welfare payments essentially “began to serve as a substitute for a husband in the home.”

Heritage Foundation Marriage Penalty Chart


“The means-tested welfare system actively penalizes low-income parents who do marry,” says Rector.  Federal welfare is a complex system with more than 80 different means-tested programs, including the EITC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Women Infants and Children (WIC) food program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), food stamps, child nutrition programs, public housing and Section 8 housing, and Medicaid.

All means-tested welfare programs are designed so that a family’s benefits are reduced as earnings rise. In practice, this means that, if a low-income single mother marries an employed father, her welfare benefits will generally be substantially reduced. The mother can maximize welfare by remaining unmarried and keeping the father’s income “off the books.”

Policymakers may not be able to eliminate all anti-marriage incentives overnight, argues Rector, but they can do so incrementally.  And they must to reverse the declining marriage trend.

The consequences of allowing marriage to become a characteristic unique to the educated elite class, or a new status symbol reserved for the affluent, are too great for the nation’s children, its social structure, and its treasury.

“Without a fix,” concludes Kim, “the growing class divide in marriage will only calcify the social and economic inequality [that is] crippling the odds for increasing numbers of children.”


Why is Marriage Thriving Among (and Only Among) the Affluent? Anne Kim, Washington Monthly
Understanding the Marriage Penalty and Marriage Bonus, Kyle Pomerleau, Tax Foundation
How Welfare Undermines Marriage and What to Do About It, Robert Rector, The Heritage Foundation