In middle america, marriage is in trouble. Among the affluent, marriage is stable and may even be getting stronger. Among the poor, marriage continues to be fragile and weak. But the most consequential marriage trend of our time concerns the broad center of our society, where marriage, that iconic middle-class institution, is foundering.

For the last few decades, the retreat from marriage has been regarded largely as a problem afflicting the poor.[1] But today, it is spreading into the solid middle of the middle class.

The numbers are clear. Wherever we look among the communities that make up the bedrock of the American middle class—whether small-town Maine, the working-class suburbs of southern Ohio, the farmlands of rural Arkansas, or the factory towns of North Carolina—the data tell the same story: Divorce is high, nonmarital childbearing is spreading, and marital bliss is in increasingly short supply.

Who are the people behind these numbers? To put a face on the “solid middle” of the United States, take a moment to browse through the senior-class photos in any public-high-school yearbook in Wichita, Kansas, or Waynesville, Ohio, or Walton, New York, or McAllen, Texas, or Greenfield, Massachusetts, or any other locale of Middle America these days.

The photos will show smiling teenage faces, bright and full of promise. In these yearbooks, you’ll surely find the faces of the college-bound kids, the athletic scholarship kids, and the National Merit Scholarship kids. But these faces will typically constitute only a minority of the class of 2010. The majority of these seniors will not be bound for selective, four-year colleges or fast-lane careers.[2] They will get their diplomas and celebrate their graduation. Then they will look for a job, join the military, or enroll in community college.

We could call them the lower-middle class or the upper-working class, but the better term is the moderately educated middle. They do not have BAs, MBAs, or PhDs. But they are not high-school dropouts either. They might have even achieved some college or training beyond high school. They are not upscale, but they are not poor. They don’t occupy any of the margins, yet they are often overlooked, even though they make up the largest share of the American middle class.[3]

In many respects, these high-school graduates are quite similar to their college-educated peers. They work. They pay taxes. They raise children. They take family vacations. But there is one thing that today’s moderately educated men and women, unlike today’s college graduates or yesterday’s high-school graduates, are increasingly less likely to do: get and stay happily married.

In these respects, the family lives of today’s high-school graduates are beginning to resemble those of high school dropouts—with all the attendant problems of economic stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children—rather than resembling the family lives they dreamed of when they threw their mortarboards into the air.

Marriage and the American Experiment

The retreat from marriage in Middle America cuts deeply into the nation’s hopes and dreams as well. For if marriage is increasingly unachievable for our moderately educated citizens—a group that represents 58 percent of the adult population (age 25–60)[4]—then it is likely that we will witness the emergence of a new society. For a substantial share of the United States, economic mobility will be out of reach, their children’s life chances will diminish, and large numbers of young men will live apart from the civilizing power of married life.

This retreat is also troubling because highly educated Americans (defined here as having at least a bachelor’s degree) have in recent years been largely unaffected by the tidal wave of family change that first hit the poor in the 1960s and has since moved higher into Middle America. Indeed, highly educated Americans, who make up 30 percent of the adult population, now enjoy marriages that are as stable and happy as those four decades ago. There is thus a growing “marriage gap” between moderately and highly educated America.[5] This means that more affluent Americans are now doubly privileged in comparison to their moderately educated fellow citizens—by their superior socioeconomic resources and by their stable family lives.

So the United States is increasingly a separate and unequal nation when it comes to the institution of marriage. Marriage is in danger of becoming a luxury good attainable only to those with the material and cultural means to grab hold of it. The marginalization of marriage in Middle America is especially worrisome, because this institution has long served the American experiment in democracy as an engine of the American Dream, a seedbed of virtue for children, and one of the few sources of social solidarity in a nation that otherwise prizes individual liberty.[6]

The Evidence [7]

The retreat from marriage hit first and hardest among African American and poor communities in the 1960s and 1970s. But in recent years, it has spread into Middle America at an astonishingly fast pace. (“Race, Class, and Marriage,” below, confirms that the retreat from marriage applies to both black and white moderately educated Americans.)

More precisely, in the last four decades, moderately educated Americans have seen their rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing rise, while their odds of wedded bliss have fallen, to the point where their family lives look more and more like those of the least-educated Americans (defined here as having no high-school degree) who make up 12 percent of the adult population aged 25–60. By contrast, marriage trends among highly educated Americans have largely stabilized since the 1970s.

Adult Trends

Figure 1. Percent Chance of Divorce or Separation Within 10 Years of First Marriage, 15–44 year-old Women, by Education and Year of Marriage

Percent Chance of Divorce or Separation Within 10 Years of First Marriage, 15-44 year-old Women, by Education and Year of Marriage

Divorce. As Figure 1 indicates, the percentage of moderately educated marriages ending in divorce or separation within 10 years of marriage rose from 36 percent for couples who married in the early 1970s to 37 percent for couples who married in the late 1990s. Indeed, in the recent period, the moderately educated dissolved their marriages at a rate somewhat higher than the 36 percent found among the least educated. By contrast, the percent of highly educated married couples who divorced within 10 years of marriage actually fell from 15 to 11 percent over the same period.

Figure 2. Percentage in “Very Happy” Marriage, 18–60 year-old Marrieds, by Education and Decade

Percentage in 'Very Happy' Marriage, 18-60 year-old Marrieds, by Education and Decade

Marital Happiness. From the 1970s to the 2000s, as Figure 2 indicates, the percent of spouses who reported they were “very happy” in their marriages dropped among moderately and least-educated Americans from, respectively, 68 percent to 57 percent and from 59 percent to 52 percent. But there was no drop in marital happiness for highly educated Americans; among this group, 69 percent reported they were “very happy” over this period. Thus moderately educated Americans moved away from highly educated Americans and toward the least-educated Americans in their odds of reporting that they were “very happy” in marriage.

Figure 3. Percentage in Intact First Marriage, 25–60-year-olds, by Education and Decade

Percentage in Intact First Marriage, 25-60-year-olds, by Education and Decade

Adults in First Marriages. Figure 3 indicates that the percentage of moderately educated working-age adults who were in first marriages fell 28 percentage points, from 73 percent in the 1970s to 45 percent in the 2000s. This compares to a 17-point drop among highly educated adults and a 28-point drop among the least-educated adults over this same time period. What is particularly striking about Figure 3 is that moderately and highly educated Americans were both just as likely to be married in the 1970s; now, when it comes to their odds of being in an intact marriage, Middle Americans are more likely to resemble the least educated. It is also noteworthy that only a minority of least and moderately educated Americans aged 25–60 are in intact marriages, compared to 56 percent of their highly educated peers.

Figure 4. Percentage of Women 25–44 Years Old Who Have Ever Cohabited, by Education and Year

Percentage of Women 25-44 Years Old Who Have Ever Cohabited, by Education and Year

Cohabitation. Moderately educated Americans are increasingly likely to choose living together instead of marriage (see Figure 4). From 1988 to the late 2000s, the percentage of women aged 25–44 who had ever cohabited rose 29 percentage points for moderately educated Americans—slightly higher than the 24-point increase for the least educated. Over the same period, cohabitation grew 15 percentage points among the highly educated. When it comes to cohabitation, then, Middle America again looks more like downscale than upscale America.

Child Trends

Figure 5. Percentage of Births to Never-married* Women 15–44 Years Old, by Education and Year

Percentage of Births to Never-married* Women 15-44 Years Old, by Education and Year

Nonmarital Childbearing. Moderately educated mothers are moving in the direction of the least-educated mothers with respect to unwed births (see Figure 5). In the early 1980s, 13 percent of children born to moderately educated mothers were born outside of marriage, and 33 percent of children born to least-educated women were born outside of marriage. Only 2 percent of children born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage. By the late 2000s, nonmarital childbirths accounted for 44 percent of children born to moderately educated mothers, 54 percent of children born to the least-educated mothers, and 6 percent of children born to highly educated mothers. Over this time period, then, the nonmarital childbearing gap grew between Middle and upscale America and shrunk between Middle and downscale America.

Figure 6. Percentage of 14-year-old Girls Living with Mother and Father, by Mother’s Education and Year

Percentage of 14-year-old Girls Living with Mother and Father, by Mother's Education and Year

Family Contexts of Children. Increases in divorce and nonmarital childbearing in poor and middle-class communities across America mean that more and more children in these communities are not living in homes with their own two biological or adoptive parents, especially in comparison to children from more affluent and educated homes. Figure 6 indicates that children in the 2000s who have highly educated mothers are just as likely to live with their own two parents as they would have been two decades earlier. Specifically, 81 percent of these 14-year-old girls in the NSFG report were living with both parents in the 2000s, compared to 80 percent in the 1970s. By contrast, the percentage of 14-year-old girls living with both parents fell 16 percentage points for girls with moderately educated mothers and 13 percentage points for girls with least-educated mothers. This means that the family-structure gap grew markedly between upscale and Middle America, and it shrunk between Middle and downscale America.

Across all these key measures, we see a clear retreat from marriage among moderately educated Americans. The speed of change over just a few decades is astonishing. In the 1970s, the moderately educated were just as likely as the highly educated to be happily married and to be in a first marriage. Now, they are more likely to resemble the least educated in their diminished chances of marital success. Indeed, for every one of the adult and child indicators measured in this report, the marriage gap has grown between Middle and upscale America even as it has shrunk or remained constant between Middle and downscale America.

A Change of Heart in Middle America

Like the vast majority of Americans, the moderately educated middle class aspires to the contemporary ideal of an emotionally satisfying and long-lasting marriage. More than 75 percent of Americans believe that “being married” is an important value, with little variation by class (see Figure 7). So Middle Americans are no less likely than upscale Americans to value marriage in the abstract.

Figure 7. Percentage of 25–60-year-olds Reporting Marriage as “Very Important” or as “One of the Most Important Things” to Them, by Education

Percentage of 25-60-year-olds Reporting Marriage as 'Very Important' or as 'One of the Most Important Things' to Them, by Education

But increasingly those in the middle strata of our society, like those at the bottom, find that their life experience is at odds with their aspirations. In their attitudes as well as in their behavior, Middle Americans are shifting toward a culture that still honors the ideal of marriage but increasingly accepts departures from that ideal. They have also not been well served by the rise of the “soul mate” model of marriage (more on this below), which is less accessible to them—for both cultural and material reasons—than is the older “institutional” model of marriage.

Marriage-related Beliefs and Behaviors

Three cultural developments have played a particularly noteworthy role in eroding the standing of marriage in Middle America. First, the attitudes of the moderately educated have traditionally been more socially conservative on a cluster of marriage-related matters, but they now appear to be turning more socially permissive, even as highly educated Americans have become more likely to embrace a marriage-minded mindset.

Figures 8 and 9 show that the two less-educated groups of Americans have become more accepting of divorce and premarital sex, even as highly educated Americans have moved in a more marriage-minded direction, despite the fact that historically, they have been more socially liberal.[8] For instance, from the 1970s to the 2000s, the percentage of American adults expressing the view that divorce should become more difficult fell from 53 to 40 percent among the least educated, stayed constant at 50 percent among the moderately educated, and rose from 36 to 48 percent among the highly educated (see Figure 8).

Figure 8. Percentage of 25–60-year-olds Believing Divorce Should be More Difficult to Obtain, by Education and Decade

Percentage of 25-60-year-olds Believing Divorce Should be More Difficult to Obtain, by Education and Decade

Figure 9. Percentage of 25–60-year-olds Believing Premarital Sex is Always Wrong, by Education and Decade

Percentage of 25-60-year-olds Believing Premarital Sex is Always Wrong, by Education and Decade

This broader normative shift extends beyond attitudes toward divorce and premarital sex in the abstract, and right into the home. Figure 10 indicates that teenagers from homes with a highly educated mother are markedly more likely to indicate that they would be embarrassed by a teenage pregnancy than are their peers from less-educated homes. Specifically, 76 percent of adolescents with highly educated mothers indicate that they would be embarrassed, compared to 61 percent of adolescents with moderately educated mothers and 48 percent of adolescents with mothers who did not graduate from high school. Clearly, the closer the behavior in question is to their own lives and families, the more highly educated Americans embrace a marriage-minded mindset.

Figure 10. Percentage of Adolescents Who Would be Embarrassed if They Got (or Got Someone) Pregnant, by Mother’s Education

Percentage of Adolescents Who Would be Embarrassed if They Got (or Got Someone) Pregnant, by Mother's Education

What is particularly striking here is that the American educational elite is now turning, at least in some ways, toward a new marriage-centered mindset. They are on the verge of outpacing Middle America, which has long been the putative source of traditional family values, in their rejection of easy divorce and nonmarital childbearing.

Figure 11. Percentage of 25–44-year-old Women Who Have Had Three or More Lifetime Sex Partners, by Education and Year

Percentage of 25-44-year-old Women Who Have Had Three or More Lifetime Sex Partners, by Education and Year

The second cultural development that has helped to erode Middle-American marriage is that these Americans are more likely to be caught up in behaviors—from multiple sexual partners to marital infidelity—that endanger their prospects for marital success. Figure 11 indicates that moderately educated Americans have been accumulating more sexual partners than highly educated Americans, especially in recent years. And Figure 12 indicates that marital infidelity is more common among the moderately educated than among their highly educated neighbors. These behavioral trends are especially important because both undercut the stability of marriage, and the former is related to an increased risk of nonmarital childbearing.[9]

Figure 12. Percentage of Ever-Married 25–60-year-olds Who Had Sex with Someone Other Than Their Spouse While Married, by Education and Decade

Percentage of Ever-Married 25-60-year-olds Who Had Sex with Someone Other Than Their Spouse While Married, by Education and Decade

Bourgeois Values and Virtues

The third cultural development that has played a role in eroding the standing of marriage is that moderately educated Americans are markedly less likely than are highly educated Americans to embrace the bourgeois values and virtues—for instance, delayed gratification, a focus on education, and temperance—that are the sine qua nons of personal and marital success in the contemporary United States. By contrast, highly educated Americans (and their children) adhere devoutly to a “success sequence” norm that puts education, work, marriage, and childbearing in sequence, one after another, in ways that maximize their odds of making good on the American Dream and obtaining a successful family life.[10]Their commitment to the success sequence also increases the odds that they abide by bourgeois virtues like delayed gratification.

Figure 13. Percentage of Adolescents Wanting to Attend College “Very Much,” by Mother’s Education

Percentage of Adolescents Wanting to Attend College 'Very Much,' by Mother's Education

When it comes to education, as Figure 13 shows, marked class differences exist in adolescent desires regarding college. Among children of highly educated mothers, 83 percent of teens “very much” want to attend college. But only 69 percent of teens with moderately educated mothers and 56 percent of teens with least-educated mothers expressed a similar preference. These differences are emblematic of different orientations by class not only toward education but also toward the virtues of self-control and hard work that make a college degree possible.

Figure 14. Percentage of Adolescents Agreeing That Having Birth Control on Hand Takes Too Much Planning, by Mother’s Education

Percentage of Adolescents Agreeing That Having Birth Control on Hand Takes Too Much Planning, by Mother's Education

Indeed, the least educated and the moderately educated, especially men in these communities, are more likely to struggle with a live-for-the-moment ethos marked by higher levels of substance abuse, long periods of idleness, and less consistent use of contraception. For instance, Figure 14 shows that adolescents from these less-educated homes are markedly more likely than adolescents from highly educated homes to report that it “takes too much planning ahead of time to have birth control on hand.” Not surprisingly, there are also marked differences in consistent contraceptive use by class among unmarried adults. Figure 15 indicates that unmarried young adults in the United States are much more likely to have consistently used contraception with their most recent romantic partner if they are highly educated.

Figure 15. Percentage of Never-Married Young Adults Using Birth Control “All the Time” With Current or Last Sexual Partner, by Education

Percentage of Never-Married Young Adults Using Birth Control 'All the Time' With Current or Last Sexual Partner, by Education

Middle Americans’ growing distance from a bourgeois ethos that stresses self-control in service of the success sequence makes it more difficult for them to avoid a nonmarital childbirth, to get married, and to steer clear of divorce court.

The Increasingly Elusive Soul Mate Model

The impact of these cultural forces on marriage in Middle America has been augmented and abetted by the rise in recent years of a new model of what marriage should be. Over the last four decades, many Americans have moved away from identifying with an “institutional” model of marriage, which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union. This model has been overwritten by the “soul mate” model, which sees marriage as primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses.[11] Thus where marriage used to serve as the gateway to responsible adulthood, it has come to be increasingly seen as a capstone of sorts that signals couples have arrived, both financially and emotionally—or are on the cusp of arriving.[12]

Although this newer model of marriage—and the new norms associated with it—has affected all Americans, it poses unique challenges to poor and Middle American adults. One problem with this newer model—which sets a high financial and emotional bar for marriage—is that many poor and Middle American couples now believe that they do not have the requisite emotional and economic resources to get or stay married. By contrast, poor and Middle Americans of a generation or two ago would have identified with the institutional model of marriage and been markedly more likely to get and stay married, even if they did not have much money or a consistently good relationship. They made do.[13]

But their children and grandchildren are much less likely to accept less-than-ideal relationships. And because infidelity, substance abuse, and unplanned pregnancies are more common in Middle America than they are in upscale America, Middle Americans are less likely than their better-educated peers to experience high-quality soul-mate relationships and are, hence, less likely to get and stay married. Their standards for marriage have increased, but their ability to achieve those standards has not.

A related problem with this newer model is that it disconnects the normative links among sex, parenthood, and marriage. Sex doesn’t necessarily suggest marriage or parenthood. Likewise, marriage doesn’t always mean parenthood, and vice versa. This more laissez-faire approach to sex and parenthood generally works well enough for highly educated Americans, who tend to focus first on education and work, then marriage, and then children, and who see early parenthood as an obstacle to their bourgeois success sequence.

But it does not work out so well for less-educated Americans, who greatly value children, do not have bright educational and professional prospects, and also do not believe their romantic relationships or marriages meet society’s new bar for a capstone marriage. Indeed, their love of children and the disconnect between their soul-mate ideals and their real-word experiences leave less-educated Americans much more likely to have children outside of marriage, to cohabit, or to divorce when their relationship or their financial situation fails to measure up to expectations.

Figure 16. Percentage of 25–44-year-olds Agreeing That Marriage Has Not Worked Out for Most People They Know, by Education

Percentage of 25-44-year-olds Agreeing That Marriage Has Not Worked Out for Most People They Know, by Education

As sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas point out, poor Americans “have embraced a set of surprisingly mainstream norms about marriage and the circumstances in which it should occur.” The problem is that they are “far less likely to reach their ‘white picket fence dream’ ” than are their highly educated peers.[14] And as Figure 16 indicates, the loss of faith in marriage that Edin and Kefalas document among the least-educated Americans is now common among moderately educated Americans, who are also now more likely to feel they cannot fit their “white picket fence” dreams of a soul-mate marriage and a decent middle-class lifestyle together with their much starker realities.

Specifically, 53 percent of Americans aged 25–44 who are the least educated report that “marriage has not worked out for most people [they] know.” Moreover, almost as many moderately educated young adults (43 percent) express a similar view. By contrast, only 17 percent of young adults who are highly educated now take this view. All in all, then, a large minority of Middle Americans seem to be losing touch with marriage-related beliefs and behaviors, as well as the bourgeois values and virtues that sustain marriage in contemporary America.[15]

The Retreat from Institutions

The retreat from marriage in Middle America is not only a consequence of the changing cultural contours of American life. Shifts in the economy and civil society also appear to have played an important role—especially the growing disengagement of moderately educated Americans from the institutions of work and religion.

The Falling Economic Fortunes of Middle America

In today’s information economy, the manual skills of moderately educated Americans are now markedly less valued than the intellectual and social skills of the highly educated. As a consequence, moderately educated workers, especially males, have seen the real value of their wages fall and their spells of unemployment increase with alarming frequency since the 1970s. In the words of sociologist Andrew Cherlin, “The middle may be dropping out of the American labor market.”[16] By contrast, highly educated Americans, including men, have seen their real wages increase since the 1970s and have not experienced marked increases in unemployment (except during the Great Recession, but over the last two years, unemployment has been much worse for moderately educated men).[17]

Figure 17. Percentage of 25–60-year-old Men Unemployed at Some Point Over the Last 10 Years, by Education and Decade

Percentage of 25-60-year-old Men Unemployed at Some Point Over the Last 10 Years, by Education and Decade

Figure 17 shows that the percentage of American men (aged 25–60) with a high-school degree who experienced unemployment in the last 10 years rose nine percentage points from the 1970s to the 2000s. By contrast, unemployment did not rise for men with a college degree. Clearly, moderately educated men have become more likely than their highly educated peers to struggle with spells of unemployment.

This is important, because as sociologist William Julius Wilson points out, men who are not stably employed at jobs with decent wages are viewed—both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their partners—as less eligible marriage material and as inferior husbands.[18] Men who are disconnected from the institution of work are also less likely to enjoy the salutary disciplines and benefits of employment, such as living by a schedule, steering clear of substance abuse, personal satisfaction with work well done, and social status. They are thus less likely to get and stay married than are their peers who have good jobs.[19]

Besides the changing economic fortunes of men, growing economic inequality in general between Middle and upscale America is also likely to have fueled the increased marriage gap between these two groups. Over the last 40 years, upper-income families have been accruing more income and assets, relative to Americans in middle- and lower-income families. In other words, not only is the gap between the rich and poor growing, but so also is the gap between the rich and the middle.[20]

When it comes to marriage-related behaviors, this growing wealth gap is important both for children and adults. Children who grow up in more affluent homes have access to more educational opportunities (such as tutoring and private schools), more prestigious social networks (including their parents’ professional connections), and more money for college—so they are less likely to accumulate educational loans. All of these advantages increase the likelihood that they will find good jobs and accumulate substantial assets as adults—both of which increase their odds of avoiding a nonmarital pregnancy, of getting married, and of staying married.

Figure 18. Median Household Income, by Mother’s Education

Median Household Income, by Mother's Education

Figure 18 is indicative of how stratified family income was for American teenagers in the mid-1990s. Specifically, the median family income for teenagers whose mothers were highly educated was $60,000 in 1994–1995. By contrast, the median family income for teenagers whose mothers were moderately educated was $38,000, and for teenagers whose mothers did not graduate from high school, it was $20,000.

Thus the shifting economic foundations of American economic life—especially the fraying connections of moderately educated Americans to the world of work—have played an important role in marginalizing marriage in Middle America.[21]

Bowling Alone in Middle America

Civil society has long played a central role in the American experiment in democracy, helping—among other things—to sustain strong families. Civic institutions, particularly houses of worship, have traditionally reinforced the generic and family-specific moral norms that guide family life. They supply families with financial, social, and emotional aid in times of need, and they connect families to other families who can provide counsel and inspiration in handling the tragedies, difficulties, and joys of family life. They also foster social skills—from public speaking to organizing events—that redound to the benefit of spouses and parents. In all these ways, civic institutions have played an important role in strengthening the quality and stability of marriage and family life.[22]

Figure 19. Percentage of 25–60-year-olds Who Were Members of a Nonreligious Civic Group, by Education and Decade

Percentage of 25-60-year-olds Who Were Members of a Nonreligious Civic Group, by Education and Decade

Yet no scholarship has considered the possibility that one source of the growing marriage gap in America may be the growing disengagement of Middle Americans from civil society over the last 40 years.[23] Specifically, Figure 19 shows that among American adults aged 25”60, the percentage who were members of nonreligious civic organizations—such as athletic clubs, the Jaycees, labor unions, and veterans’ organizations—fell most among least-educated Americans (29 percentage points) and moderately educated Americans (19 points). The drop was less for the highly educated (nine points). Thus a growing gap in civic engagement exists between less-educated and more-educated Americans.

Figure 20. Percentage of 25–60-year-olds Who Were Attending Church Nearly Every Week or More, by Education and Decade

Percentage of 25-60-year-olds Who Were Attending Church Nearly Every Week or More, by Education and Decade

A similar pattern can be found in religious attendance. Figure 20 shows that the religious-attendance gap has grown most between the moderately and the highly educated (from two to six percentage points) and has shrunk between the moderately and the least educated (from eight to five percentage points). Moderately educated Americans also registered the biggest declines in religious attendance from the 1970s to the present. Over the last 40 years, then, Middle America has lost its religious edge over their more highly educated fellow citizens.

So in a striking turn of events, highly educated America is now both more marriage-minded and religious than is moderately educated America—in some important ways. Accordingly, Middle Americans are now markedly less likely than they used to be to benefit from the social solidarity, the religious and normative messages about marriage and family life, and the social control associated with regular churchgoing, especially in comparison with their neighbors who graduated from college.

Recent declines in American civic life have hit Middle America especially hard, and bear some responsibility for the marriage gap between the moderately and the highly educated. The eroded power and presence of churches, unions, veterans’ organizations, and athletic groups in the lives of Middle Americans has likely undercut many of the habits of the heart that would otherwise sustain strong marriages and families. Nevertheless, at least with the indicators available in current datasets, the findings from this report indicate that the deteriorating fortunes of civil society have generally contributed less to the retreat from marriage in Middle America than have the cultural and economic changes of the last four decades.[24]

When Marriage Disappears
in Middle America

Marriage is a middle-class institution that provides stability and security for family life against the hustle of the market and the bustle of a dynamic society. Indeed, as Tocqueville famously observed, Americans have traditionally embraced marriage more fervently than have Europeans because we need it as a bulwark against the individualism and entrepreneurialism that pervades our society and economy.[25]

It is one of the great social tragedies of our time that marriage is flourishing among the most advantaged and self-actualized groups in our society and waning among those who could most benefit from its economic and child-rearing partnership.

If marriage becomes unachievable for all but the highly educated, then the American experiment itself will be at risk. The disappearance of marriage in Middle America would endanger the American Dream, the emotional and social welfare of children, and the stability of the social fabric in thousands of communities across the country. We know, for instance, that children who grow up in intact, married families are significantly more likely to graduate from high school, finish college, become gainfully employed, and enjoy a stable family life themselves, compared to their peers who grow up in nonintact families.[26]

Given the current trends, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that the United States could be heading toward a 21st century version of a traditional Latin American model of family life, where only a comparatively small oligarchy enjoys a stable married and family life—and the economic and social fruits that flow from strong marriages. In this model, the middle and lower-middle classes would find it difficult to achieve the same goals for their families and would be bedeviled by family discord and economic insecurity.[27]

This is why the nation must now turn its attention to reviewing and renewing the economic, cultural, and civic conditions that sustain strong marriages and families for moderately educated Americans, who still constitute the majority of citizens and have long been a bastion of conventional family life in the nation.

We cannot (and should not) simply turn the clock back, trying to recreate the social and cultural conditions of some bygone era. But if we seek to renew the fortunes of marriage in Middle America and to close the marriage gap between the moderately and the highly educated, we must pursue public policies that strengthen the employment opportunities of the high-school educated, cultural reforms that seek to reconnect marriage and parenthood for all Americans, and efforts to strengthen religious and civic institutions that lend our lives meaning, direction, and a measure of regard for our neighbors—not to mention our spouses.

The alternative to taking economic, cultural, and civic steps like these is to accept that the United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones.

Race, Class, and Marriage

Forty-five years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan drew the nation’s attention to the growing racial divide in American family life with the release of his report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”[28] Moynihan later noted that his report had just captured the first tremors of “the earthquake that shuddered through the American family” over the course of the last half century.[29]

Moynihan was right. This can be seen in Figure S1, which tracks trends in the percentage of working-age adults (25–60) who are in intact marriages, by race and educational attainment. While it is true that the nation’s retreat from marriage started first among African Americans, it is also evident that the retreat from marriage has now clearly moved into the precincts of black and white Middle America. Specifically, in both the 1970s and the 2000s, blacks in all educational groupings were less likely to be in intact marriage than were their white peers. For both groups, marriage trends were not clearly and consistently stratified by education in the 1970s. However, by the 2000s, they are clearly stratified, such that the most-educated whites and blacks are also the most likely to be in intact marriages, and the least-educated whites and blacks are also the least likely to be in intact marriages.

Figure S1. Percent in Intact First Marriage, 25–60-year-olds, by Race, Education, and Decade

Percent in Intact First Marriage, 25-60-year-olds, by Race, Education, and Decade

When it comes to children, Figure S2 indicates that trends in nonmarital childbearing have been stratified by race and education since the 1970s. But for both whites and blacks, the biggest percentage-point increases in nonmarital childbearing have come among moderately educated women. And for both racial groups, the nonmarital-childbearing gap shrunk between the two less-educated groups and grew between the two more-educated groups. It is also interesting to note that nonmarital childbearing did not increase at all for white, highly educated women from 1982 to the late 2000s.

Figure S2. Percent of Births to Never-married* Women 15–44 Years Old, by Race, Education, and Year

Percent of Births to Never-married* Women 15-44 Years Old, by Race, Education, and Year

Figure S3. Percent of 14-year-old Girls Living with Mother and Father, by Race, Mother’s Education, and Year

Percent of 14-year-old Girls Living with Mother and Father, by Race, Mother's Education, and Year

Much the same pattern can be found when we look at racial trends in family structure for children in Figure S3. For both black and white children, the family-structure gap grows dramatically between 14-year-old girls with moderately educated mothers and those with highly educated mothers. But this gap does not grow between girls with least-educated and moderately educated mothers. Furthermore, for both racial groups, 14-year-old girls whose mothers are highly educated are more likely to live with both of their parents in the 2000s compared to the 1970s.

Thus Figures S1 through S3 show that the marriage gap between moderately educated and highly educated Americans is growing for both blacks and whites. In other words, the nation’s deepening marital divide now runs not only along racial lines but also class lines.

Methodological Note

This report relies on three large, nationally representative datasets of adults and young adults: The General Social Survey (GSS) (1972–2008; n=52,849), the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) (1973–2008; n=71,740), and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) (1994–2008; n=15,701).[30] The descriptive information presented in Figures 1 through 20 and Figures S1 through S3 is based on the maximum number of cases available for education and the outcome measured in each figure from the appropriate years of the relevant dataset.

In an effort to determine how much cultural, economic, and civic factors have contributed to the growing marriage gap between high school–educated (here called “moderately educated”) and college-educated (here called “highly educated”) adult Americans, we ran a series of logistic regression models to determine how education was associated with (a) the growing gap between these two groups in their odds of being in intact marriages, from 1972 to 2008 (using GSS data), (b) the contemporary gap between these two groups in nonmarital childbearing (using Add Health data), and (c) the contemporary gap between these two groups in rates of divorce (using NSFG data). Tables A1 through A3 report the results of those regressions (available online at www.stateofourunions.org/2010/appendix.php). In Model 1 in each of these tables, we control for a number of variables—age, region, race, gender, and family structure during childhood—that might otherwise confound the association between education and these three marriage-related outcomes.

In Model 2, using each of these datasets, we add a number of cultural variables to the logistic regression model in an effort to determine how much cultural factors account for educational differences in the marriage gap. In Model 3, we add a number of economic variables to the logistic regression model in an effort to determine how much economic factors account for educational differences in the marriage gap. In Model 4, we add religious variables to the logistic regression model in an effort to determine how much civic factors account for educational differences in the marriage gap. Finally, in Model 5, we include all of our variables in an effort to determine which cultural, economic, and civic factors are robustly associated with the outcome at hand.


  1. See Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005); Sara McLanahan, “Diverging Destinies: How Children are Faring Under the Second Demographic Transition,” Demography 41 (2004): 607–627; and, William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
  2. Data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG [2006–2008]) indicate that 51% of today’s young adults (age 25–34) have graduated from high school without getting a four-year-college degree, 31% have graduated from college, and 18% have not graduated from high school.
  3. See Andrew J. Cherlin, “Between Poor and Prosperous: Are the Family Patterns of Moderately Educated Americans Distinctive?” Prepared for the conference, “Thinking About the Family in an Unequal Society” (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, May 2009).
  4. To determine the educational composition of the U.S. population aged 25–60, we analyzed General Social Survey data from 2004–2008. In this period, 30% of adults were college educated, 58% were high-school educated, and 12% were high-school dropouts. In the 1970s, 16% of adults were college educated, 54% were high-school educated, and 30% were high-school dropouts. Note also that this report treats educational attainment as a rough approximation of class position, such that college-educated Americans are described as upscale, high school-educated Americans are described as Middle Americans, and high-school dropouts are described as downscale (for one example of the close connection between education and class, see Figure 18).
  5. See Kay S. Hymowitz, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-marital Age (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006).
  6. See Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000); W. Bradford Wilcox et al., Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-six Conclusions from the Social Sciences (New York: Institute for American Values, 2005).
  7. This analysis relies on data from three large, nationally representative surveys: the General Social Survey (1972–2008), the National Survey of Family Growth (1973–2008), and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (1994–2008). For more details on this report’s methodology, see the “Methodological Note.”
  8. See Steven P. Martin and Sangeeta Parashar, “Women’s Changing Attitudes Toward Divorce, 1974–2002: Evidence for an Educational Crossover,” Journal of Marriage and Family 68 (2006): 29–40.
  9. See Daniel T. Lichter and Zhenchao Qian, “Serial Cohabitation and the Marital Life Course,” Journal of Marriage and Family 70 (2008): 861–878; Suzanne Ryan, Kerry Franzetta, Jennifer S. Manlove, and Erin Schelar, “Older Sexual Partners During Adolescence: Links to Reproductive Health Outcomes in Young Adulthood,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 40 (2008): 17–26.
  10. See Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Marline Pearson, Making a Love Connection: Teen Relationships, Pregnancy, and Marriage (Washington: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2006).
  11. See Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, “Who Wants to Marry a Soul Mate?” The State of Our Unions 2001 (New Brunswick, NJ: National Marriage Project, 2001): 6–16.
  12. See Andrew J. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).
  13. See Lillian B. Rubin, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family (New York: Basic Books, 1976, 1992).
  14. Edin and Kefalas, Promises: 201–202.
  15. For more details on the relationships among culture, family change, divorce, and nonmarital childbearing, see Tables A1 through A3 (www.stateofourunions.org/2010/appendix.php). These tables indicate that attitudes toward divorce, premarital sex, pregnancy, and marriage, as well as a history of cohabitation, multiple sexual partnerships, substance abuse, and early marriage, are related to changes over time in adults’ marital status and to current rates of nonmarital childbearing and divorce. These attitudes and histories also account for a noteworthy share of the marriage gap in these outcomes between highly educated and moderately educated Americans.
  16. Cherlin, “Between Poor and Prosperous”: 12.
  17. See Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America 2008/2009 (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2009).
  18. See William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).
  19. See Valerie Kincade Oppenheimer, “The Continuing Importance of Men’s Economic Position in Marriage Formation,” in Linda J. Waite (ed.), The Ties that Bind: Perspectives on Marriage and Cohabitation (Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 2000): 283–301; Liana C. Sayer, Paula England, Paul Allison, and Nicole Kangas, “She Left, He Left: How Employment and Satisfaction Affect Men’s and Women’s Decisions to Leave Marriages,” American Journal of Sociology (2011), forthcoming.
  20. See Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010): 9. Available online at www.census.gov/prod/2010pubs/p60-238.pdf.
  21. For more details on the relationships among economics, family change, divorce, and nonmarital childbearing, see Tables A1 through A3 (www.stateofourunions.org/2010/appendix.php). These tables indicate that unemployment, income, and assets are related to changes over time in adults’ marital status and to current rates of nonmarital childbearing and divorce. They also account for a noteworthy share of the marriage gap in these outcomes between college-educated and moderately educated Americans.
  22. See Paul R. Amato et al., Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000); W. Bradford Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  23. See Robert Wuthnow, “The United States: Bridging the Privileged and the Marginalized?” in Robert D. Putnam (ed.), Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 59–102.
  24. For more details on the relationships among civic engagement, family change, divorce, and nonmarital childbearing, see Tables A1 through A3 (www.stateofourunions.org/2010/appendix.php). Because of data limitations, we focused on religious attendance and affiliation in our analysis of civic engagement and marriage-related outcomes. These tables indicate that religious attendance and religious affiliation are related to changes over time in adults’ marital status and to current rates of nonmarital childbearing and divorce. They also account for a noteworthy share of the marriage gap in these outcomes between highly educated and moderately educated Americans. Nevertheless, the cultural and economic variables in this report’s statistical analyses are more powerfully related to these outcomes than are the report’s religious variables.
  25. See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1969): 622.
  26. See Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2009); Nicholas H. Wolfinger, Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  27. See, for instance, Teresa Castro Martin, “Consensual Unions in Latin America: Persistence of a Dual Nuptial Regime.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 33 (2002): 35–55.
  28. Office of Policy Planning and Research, United States Department of Labor (March 1965). Available online at www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm.
  29. Maureen Dowd, “Moynihan Opens Major Drive to Replace Welfare Program,” New York Times, January 24, 1987. Available online at www.nytimes.com/1987/01/24/us/moynihan-opens-major-drive-to-replace-welfare-program.html.
  30. This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website (www.cpc.unc.edu/addhealth). No direct support was received from grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.