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Marriage Becoming “Luxury Good”

Marriage Becoming “Luxury Good”

Last month, the New York Times highlighted a milestone: 59% of all births to women under 30 years old now occur outside of marriage. That’s a significant shift, and one that has profound implications. Regardless of whether or not one believes that having children out of wedlock is a moral issue, the truth is that research shows it puts children at an elevated risk of poverty, failing in school and suffering emotional and behavioral problems.

It’s certainly not always the case that single-parent households are less stable than the alternative, but single mothers often don’t have the same resources that married women do. Census stats place as many as 27% of single mothers and their children below the poverty line.

The Times article doesn’t point to any simple reasons for this rise in single motherhood, but does point to some greater social trends. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance of couples cohabiting without marrying – and, sometimes, having children. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this, and some parents do manage to provide a stable, two-parent household for their children while unmarried. In some countries these relationships are not meaningfully different from marriages. But cohabiting couples in the US are twice as likely to break up than married couples.

Women are also experiencing greater economic freedom than in years past, with the average wages of women without a college degree rising by 8% over the last 30 years. Men without a degree, on the other hand, have seen their wages slip by the same amount. This more equal footing is allowing more women to forgo marriages that, in the past, may have been the only way to support their families. It may also make marriage a less appealing option financially, as the combined household income can disqualify some needy families from government aid and services.

What’s really interesting is that marriage rates have held steady in one particular demographic. College graduates still overwhelmingly marry before having children – prompting one sociologist, Frank Furstenberg, to tell the Times, “Marriage has become a luxury good.”

Why is this? The Times gives some thought-provoking reasons. More educated men are more likely to treat their wives and girlfriends as equal partners in a relationship, leading to more satisfying marriages. Fewer working-class women are willing to settle for marriages they don’t find fulfilling – opting to remain unmarried, even when they are in relationships with the children’s fathers or the fathers are actively involved in their children’s lives.

Despite grumblings about the moral decline of modern society, it’s hard to see this as a bad thing. Women, who are increasingly able to support children on their own, are refusing to marry men who don’t make them happy when they don’t need to rely on those men for financial support. While there’s certainly some cause for alarm in these statistics, there’s also some cause for celebration.

 

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Photo credit: Pawel Loj

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66 comments

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12:03PM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

Juliet, thank you for the advice. But it better to have a peace of mind than living in pieces. Because materials will never buy me peace of mind, love, comfort, happiness, etc.

12:00PM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

it says 59% of these biths occur outside of marriage but that doesn't necessarily mean to single mothers, many people choose have a life together without being married

both my children were born before I was married but I have always been with their father and when they were 7 and 3 we decided to get married

11:55AM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

Lynne B- Divorce is not the solution, secondly, how can people acknowledge you as being responsible when you have opted to be single other than helping someone becoming responsible as well? It is not in all cases but in some truly certain people donot want to be controlled. They want to be free at all times to flirt arround hence them opting to be single mothers or fathers.
I am on separation with my wife because she opted not to be controlled and always threatening to kill herself if I will not divorce her. She has no single qualification while I have, and always supporting her and my children from birth up to now, am still supporting them because it is my responsibility as the head of the family. She in another country while am in another country as well. But am doing everything for my children even her. We have 7 children. 5 are at school while 2 are out of school. But this will not stop me from marrying another understanding and responsible woman. In fact, I have already identified one!

11:47AM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

Look closely at the divorce laws where you live before you marry. My ex-husband was trying to move us to a community property state at the same time that our marriage was having problems. If I'd gone along with the move, I'd have lost half of everything.

10:14AM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

Massongo M - Right now, I'd never get married. What happens to all the responsible people who get divorced? Do they become irresponsible as soon as they do, even when they continue to love and take care of their children?

9:41PM PDT on Mar 25, 2012

I was a single parent for years. I support single mothers, whether by choice or not. That being said, I also say "Morality be damned; there is reason why parents come in pairs!" Raising a child or children alone is not easy (unless of course you let nannies raise them and then you are not really a parent to them). Even with all the money you could ever need, children can try the patience of a Saint (and I'm not one).

I also agree with Ruby W. - you don't need a fancy wedding to have a good marriage.

And on a related topic, for those who are so supportive of double-parent homes, why are some of you so against the ones that consist of two same-sex parents? And why should they be denied the right to be married and raise their children in a stable, supportive, loving marriage?

9:23PM PDT on Mar 25, 2012

If people are concerned about the decline of marriage, then there needs to be a very open discussion of the role of marriage in modern society and some major restructuring of work and family if promoting marriage is a goal. There is no way that woman can or should be shamed into forgoing work to stay at home if for no other reason than that most households with two earners need both and cannot afford to have a stay-at-home parent. If this is a social requirement then we need social support for this goal.

9:22PM PDT on Mar 25, 2012

If people saw weddings differently, more would get married. I don't think it is marriage that is the luxury good, but the wedding itself. So many people think that there's no point unless you spend tens of thousands on a fabulous dress, catering, exotic honeymoon, photographer, venue, whatnot. So they live together hoping they'll have that someday and it is a wistful melancholy at the heart of the relationship, especially when they don't think they'll ever have that kind of money in their lives. I blame the movies most of all. My husband and I got married in our early twenties when we had no money. We went down to the courthouse one afternoon and just did it. Twelve years and a lot of struggling later we finally have the money for a low-key honeymoon, and it will be fun, but our marriage has not suffered from any lack of an album of pictures of people in silly clothes. Hell, we didn't even bother to buy rings until this year either. People are too symbol-dependent. I call it trying to eat the menu instead of the meal. I can't count the number of girls I've known (I can't call them women) who truly believed that bringing flowers meant a man was actually sorry and wouldn't do something over again. And many believe that a marriage won't last and do well without a fantastic, over-the-top wedding. My marriage is awesomer every year, without flower arrangements and champagne ever being needed. Honey, the two, weddings and marriage, are completely unrelated!!

6:13PM PDT on Mar 25, 2012

Cheri L., well said!

12:39PM PDT on Mar 25, 2012

Unmarried does not always mean single mothers. While it is true that one-parent households face more challenges, the studies routinely conflate marriage with two-parent households. This is based on a much older society. There is no reason to think that two-parent, unmarried households are a problem, and more people do not care about or cannot obtain a marriage. We need studies that differentiate these situations. After all, in most states same-sex couples cannot marry, but all of the evidence points to better odds for the children of lesbians than for children in general. I am reminded of a friend of mine who has mentioned that she and her husband have considered having an annual divorce and remarriage, since in her case her taxes have been increased significantly simply because she is married. That really does make marriage a luxury for some people. It really varies whether or not getting married is a sensible thing to do, even if you have the option.

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Julie M. Rodriguez Julie M. Rodriguez is an arts, green living, and political writer based in San Mateo, CA. Her work... more
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