The Real Reason That Poorer, Less-Educated Americans Aren’t Getting Married

The Real Reason That Poorer, Less-Educated Americans Aren't Getting Married

You’ve read ideas like this here before.

“After 1980, the likelihood of divorce among college-educated Americans plummeted. Despite their loosened romantic and sexual values, educated liberals became more dedicated to family stability and intensive parenting. They did adopt the beliefs that marriage is optional and divorce is acceptable, but in their personal lives, they also sought to build and sustain an egalitarian, mutually fulfilling marriage. Today, educated liberals certainly value individuality and self-expression, but they tend to pursue family stability as a primary means of realizing those values.

Poorer, less-educated Americans, especially those without a high-school degree, have exhibited the opposite trend. Although they are no less likely to cohabitate today than in previous eras, they are less likely to marry. When they do marry, they are less satisfied and more likely to divorce.”

What you haven’t read before – what I never considered before – is this theory, from my colleague Eli Finkel, researcher at Northwestern and author of one of my favorite relationship books, “The All-Or-Nothing Marriage”:

“Building and sustaining a marriage…typically requires substantial investments of time, attention, patience, and responsiveness, investments that are harder for poorer, less-educated Americans to make. When life happens—when the car breaks down or a ligament snaps—they are at greater risk for unemployment, eviction, and destitution. They tend to have less control over their schedules and less money to pay a babysitter so they may struggle to get regular time alone with their spouse. When they find such time, they are more likely to arrive to the conversation feeling emotionally depleted from other stressors, and the topics of discussion—how to stretch the money this month, how to wrangle childcare with a demanding work schedule—are often thornier. The evidence is generally supportive of this third explanation: a major reason why the marriages of poorer, less-educated Americans are struggling is that economic realities make it difficult to live up to the new cultural ideal. This struggle is leading many to opt out of marriage altogether and, for those who opt-in, to make the path to marital success more challenging.

I talk about my own marriage a lot – as an example of a highly functional one – but I am also very conscious of the built-in advantages we have.

I talk about my own marriage a lot – as an example of a highly functional one – but I am also very conscious of the built-in advantages we have. I’m an upper-middle class, educated white guy who works from home and has a wife who is a stay-at-home-mom. And, I happen to be a dating coach for women and perhaps more attuned to women’s needs and aware of my own shortcomings. As such, I shouldn’t be too surprised that our marriage might be “easier” than other couples.

When I consider what our life would look like if we made 1/10th the income, didn’t have the resources to go out frequently, didn’t have strong parental role models, and didn’t have the knowledge or time to invest in our marriage, well, it’s truly quite humbling. I have nothing but sympathy for folks who are struggling to make ends meet, and acknowledge that is MUCH harder to make a relationship work when you’re operating from a place of scarcity and trying to survive.

Your thoughts, below, are greatly appreciated.

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  1. 1
    ilana orea

    One thing that I’ve noticed dating resource-rich, upper-middle class dudes is that they still come with their share of problems. Which is surprising to me. I don’t get it, they have a career, money to pay for leisure activities and therapy, etc. And yet they still struggle with emotional intelligence. One of my friends says “It’s easier to date a rich man than a poor man”. I just don’t know anymore. I think it’s easier to date a guy that has his shit together, emotionally.

    1. 1.1

      Some upper class people ooze entitlement and gross me out. However, getting an education and figuring out a way to prosper in the world usually requires a level emotional intelligence. People who can’t regulate their emotions are the ones who struggle to hold jobs, stay in school and delay immediate gratification.

    2. 1.2

      Yes! Re emotional shit having.

      Having money has NO correlation with being a good relationship partner. I work in allied health with kids and families in a very upper class suburb and by far the most difficult people to deal with are the rich parent/s. Want everything done yesterday, are never available for follow up (including following up payment…), can’t regulate emotions to deal with anything like having to wait, or not getting the answer they wanted, think the key to problem solving is to bully, argue in the feedback session…etc

      If this is how they deal with a professional providing a service, I can’t imagine what they are like at home. Extreme example, of course. But whenever someone is thankful and polite and understanding, or just has a general air of being more relaxed, we joke that they are from out of area. Most of the time we are right. Completely turned me off ever wanting to be with a person from a rich background.

      Now, if they created their own wealth, overcame hardship and weren’t born into it, probably a different story.

  2. 2

    Agree with the two previous commenters. We tend to overlook that personality issues are separate entities from socioeconomic status, looks, etc. I will say that economic hardship really puts folk in a situation where supporting themselves let alone a family or spouse, is an impossibility and yes, the responsible thing to do is opt out of marriage and family. I came from poverty, worked my way up and out, but not everyone can do this for a variety of reasons. Lower end, unskilled or service sector jobs simply do not pay enough to meet even the basic costs of living, particularly in urban areas where one is totally dependent on cash income. One of the reasons I quit my Professorship was our colleges emphasis on more vocational degrees that would only land the students in very low wage jobs, with no benefits, and overwhelming student debt, setting them up to fail from the get go. I loved those kids too much to be a part of that. If this nation (US) wants a working class, drastic reforms are needed in wages, healthcare, housing.

  3. 3

    I think it would depend on the reasons people are poor. I tend to believe that anyone with a modicum of drive, ambition and talent can do whatever they want as long as they do the things necessary to ensure success. Namely, graduate high school, get a job, and get married before you have babies.

    There’s no reason people have to stay poor in a society which encourages upward mobility. It’s so easy to get college loans and financial aid, distance learning programs abound, there’s night school, trade school, these are all viable options if people want to work hard enough.

    1. 3.1
      Mrs Happy

      But many people don’t have “a modicum of drive, ambition and talent”. They have physical health problems, mental ill health, little access to treatment, too much stress paying the rent and bills to devote brain bandwidth to educating themselves, maybe their IQ is 100 or less and all the educational programs in the world aren’t ever going to result in them entering a highly paid field. People with 6 kids to support can’t take time off paid work and “work hard enough” to better their situation.
      Upward mobility is a fallacy for great swaths of people around the world. Women in developing nations don’t get to attend school past puberty, they don’t even get immunised because that costs $2 and a girl baby isn’t worth that. Displaced people in refugee camps cannot better their lot. The economically lowest 10% of any developed nation in any 1st world country have many issues preventing upward mobility, most of them not their fault.
      “Work hard and you’ll succeed” is a weird capitalist illusion Americans have bought into, despite what occurs in the USA. Blinkered thinking. Or, not thinking at all.

      1. 3.1.1

        Well said, Mrs Happy.

        In addition, more education doesn’t necessarily = higher pay. Scientists, allied health, parts of the education field, government…these are areas with highly educated people who aren’t well paid. I’m the daughter of a highly educated, poorly paid scientist and teacher. I work in allied health. Same thing.

        I’m not motivated by money. I don’t want a job with double the pay and less satisfaction. That’s not me. But it would be completely wrong to say I haven’t worked hard or ‘bettered’ myself. Same with my parents.

      2. 3.1.2

        People don’t need to be highly paid to be successful, they just need to live within their means. There are trade schools that offer work-study programs, in which people can obtain loan reimbursement once they get hired. You don’t have to have a seriously high intellect for a lot of those jobs. Construction, for instance, offers good pay and doesn’t require prior schooling. And with the advent of hormonal birth control, it is easier than ever to not have babies until you’re ready to support them.

        1. Marika

          You didn’t say ‘successful’, Jenn, you said ‘poor’. Twice.

          You made it sound like if you work hard & study you will be wealthy. No.

          ..Unless you want no teachers, no nurses, no allied health, no scientists, no charities…

    2. 3.2

      It is not so easy to finance a college education, and in many cases the cost of a college education outstrips the value of the degree in terms of earning power.

      Cost of living is skyrocketing, wages are pretty much flat.

      Anyone who went to college before the 80’s who likes to boast about how they worked their way through college has NO CLUE how different the economy is today.

      I feel like I dodged an economic bullet, being born in the time I was, and I am enjoying a financially secure retirement. But I know the current generation is facing my greater financial challenges. I don’t assume that this younger generation is struggling financially, because we are “better” than them, or that they are lazy or unambitious.

      And the student loan business is a criminal enterprise that would make a MAFIA loan shark blush IMO.

      1. 3.2.1

        should be “MUCH greater financial challenges” not “My financial . . .”

  4. 4

    “But I know the current generation is facing much greater financial challenge”

    Yes, we are. The median house price in Sydney exceeds $1 million AUD.

  5. 5

    I often wonder how my parents have managed to stay married almost 40 years while raising three kids on less than 30K a year (at one point), going bankrupt once, and dealing with chronic illness.

  6. 6

    The reason why poorer Americans are less likely to be married is probably due to economics. Specifically, women decide that the men don’t earn enough over what they can earn themselves to make marriage worth the hassle.

  7. 7

    I am going to pose a different theory altogether. The explanations given by the above cited articles are, in a word, b#*@&t. Ending a marriage has nothing to do with one’s economic circumstances or emotional intelligence. It is all about the barriers to exit. In today’s world, the barriers to exit for the affluents are high, very high indeed. Imagine having to sell that 5br house in an expensive suburb, split household expenses, having to shuffle the kids around, lose your social capital (eg your married couples friends), and to shell out 1/2 of your 401k to your spouse. Going from a luxury lifestyle to a 1br rental with every other weekend with the kids? Ouch. So people stay married. I know multiple couples whose marriage has effectively ended a long time ago, and who are discretely “dating” other people (similarly “married” i might add) because their kids and expensive real estate are keeping them together.

    Now, on to the poor. For them the incentives are the opposite. They have nothing to lose in a divorce, in fact a single mother might have something to gain – welfare benefits, in some situations.

    This wasn’t always like that. Prior to the advent of the welfare state, the cost of exit for the poor was.l very high. In fact, a divorces woman with kids would not be able to survive on her own, or would be living in extreme poverty. So people stayed married, despite unchecked domestic violence (emotional intelligence? Ha), having 5+ kids and facing numerous other hardships of the days before birth control, antibiotics, public schools and food stamps. So there you have it. To paraphrase, “it’s the economics, stupid”. Nothing more than that.

    1. 7.1

      There’s some truth to this statement. I feel it’s something people bemoan because they have no memory of life before “welfare”. People died, they were abused. I remember reading a book of stories on life before the welfare state in Britain. It was one of the saddest things I’d even read, just replete with stories of suffering. People have this idea suffering builds character. It mostly makes people mean and petty.

      Another possibility is that college educated people are more likely to be long term thinkers. That’s an arguement I’ll leave to Caplan and his ilk. I went on my two mile walk, and after observing human beahvior, I think we are doomed. This is a conclusion I come to daily, though. Likely not a definitive take lol.

      As for some of the other comments on socialism (Not you Gala), I’d remind you that social programs are not socialism. See Marx “Critique of the Gotha programme” , as well as Lenin’s writing on this subject. Now you know why I’m single for life lol

  8. 8

    Evan, if what Eli Finkel says is right (and it seems to make sense), then one could argue that a more socialist or welfare state is more supportive of marriage. Not full-on communist, but if everyone felt that they had a social net so that they didn’t worry that being laid off, getting sick, having kids, or going through a divorce would bankrupt them, then they might be less nervous about getting married. They’d also be less nervous IN the marriage, so that financial arguments wouldn’t turn into dramatic fights that escalate to divorce.

    But in the more socialist countries around the world (thinking of Europe, especially Scandinavia), aren’t marriage rates even lower than in North America?

    Now, this isn’t a judgment statement, but I wonder if another factor is that marriage is becoming antiquated or less necessary with time. That for centuries, it used to serve a purpose, or multiple purposes, but in today’s modern world, we don’t need it anymore to fulfill those same purposes. Now as Gala refers to, it could be seen a social status, which is more a luxury than a necessity, so those who can’t afford luxuries will also not choose to afford marriage.

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