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Wedding Crashers

Economics and individualism main culprits behind divorce, Hopkins sociologist says

Michael Northrup

By John Stoehr | Posted 7/1/2009

You have seen them on bus stops and on billboards along the interstate--advertisements boasting a pair of beaming newlyweds, rice showering over their heads, teeth radiant, and eyes agleam with the promise of the future. Above their heads is the takeaway: married people earn more money.

Funded by a private organization called Campaign for Our Children, the advertisement is one of nearly a dozen launched in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in 2005 to sell the idea that marriage deters teen pregnancy. The messages came in a variety of forms. Other ads promised that marriage leads to longer life, better health, happiness, and smarter children. Whatever the variation, the bottom line was the same: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage. In other words, marriage works.

Except when it doesn't, which is about half the time according to most American marriage statistics. Yet a roughly 50 percent divorce rate is only a piece of the puzzle of marriage and family life in America, according to Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

In his recent book, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in American Today (Knopf), Cherlin observes that the United States is the only developed country to put such a premium on marriage. Marriage has become a social marker coveted by individuals in every strata of society--from the affluent to the working class, from the near-poor to the impoverished. It is the most valued structure of family life, influencing when a child comes of age and has children of his or her own.

Yet increasingly marriage and a traditional family structure are the preserve of a privileged few. Divorce rates of the college educated are mostly flat. But for poor whites, a stable marriage is a coin toss, even for the religious, such as Southern Baptists. Put another way, the people who most want a traditional lifestyle--those in what used to be called the working class--are the same people most likely never to see that dream come true.

The reason isn't the wearing down of the sanctity of marriage, as conservatives argue, often scapegoating the poor and, more recently, gays. (In 2006, Congress set aside $150 million a year to promote "healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood," a move widely seen as pushing back against same-sex unions.) The reason is as subtle as it is powerful: a mix of declining economic prospects and the rise of what Cherlin calls expressive individualism.

"The college educated are the real winners in a global economy," Cherlin says by phone from his Hopkins office. "If you don't have a college education, you don't have as many options in the job market. And if you can't find financial security, you don't feel you can marry until you do."

Two things have been happening since the 1960s. These are, in Cherlin words, "globalization of production" and "automation." Work has fled to overseas countries brimming with cheap labor. The work that couldn't be exported--such as making cars, farming the land--is now done with technology. At the same time, we have seen an increase in individual growth and personal satisfaction as ideals expected to be found in marriage.

"We have these two clashing ideals in our heads and that explains why we have so much partnering, breaking apart, and then partnering again," Cherlin says. "We put high value on marriage as a symbol of prestige, but we also reserve the right to end it in the name of personal happiness. Marriage often can't sustain this kind of dissonance."

The result is a new pattern in American family. Young men and women live together, but don't get married. They may have children together, but still don't feel financially secure enough for marriage. And they change partners--frequently, often watching partnerships fall apart under the weight of these cultural and economic forces only to purse new ones with an eagerness fueled by those same forces.

This is the marriage-go-round. It isn't unique to the working class and it isn't unique to the United States, but Cherlin argues that the marriage-go-round revolves more frequently in the United States than in other developed countries and hits high school-educated whites the hardest. That's even more than their African-American counterparts, the very people the Campaign for Our Children evidently hopes to influence with its blushing brides and square-jawed grooms. Many of the people featured in the campaign's ads are black.

"The working-class have more partner turnover than the poor and the college-educated," Cherlin says. "They still buy into the American dream. Marriage used to be the first step in adulthood, but now it's often the last. As the economy changed, marriage changed."

This churning worries Cherlin. That ad assuring the viewer that its happy couple will be healthier, wealthier, and wiser is part of the problem. Marriage clearly isn't a solution for many people, especially if they already have children. Cherlin urges a new choice between a stable household and a chaotic one. If establishing a stable household means going without companionship or eschewing marriage, then, Cherlin says, "so be it."

"Stability matters, especially for children," Cherlin says. "The message right now is that marriage works, that it's good for everyone. But I'm not convinced that it does. Our marriage policy right now leads to overkill. That's what we've done under Bush."

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