The Luxury of Marriage

UnknownThis is Jessie, once again—the anthropologist sister.  Every so often I have an overpowering desire to contribute a post to Rochelle’s World, especially when an issue comes up that I feel strongly about.  One of these issues, which showed up in last week’s blog, is marriage—or maybe it would be better to say the lack of marriage.  I’m not talking about marriage as a moral issue.  I’m talking about marriage as an economic issue, and as a phenomenon that profoundly affects the wellbeing of a family.

I’ve spent the last dozen or so years researching marriage, both in the US and elsewhere in the world.  I’ve read a lot about the changing landscape of marriage, and I’ve collected a lot of data on my own, through interviews with never-married mothers (that is, they aren’t just divorced or widowed) in rural Washington state and Idaho, and on the Texas-Mexico border.  That’s how I became involved with Rochelle, who (as you know if you read this blog) is a friend and former coworker of my sister’s.

One thing that has struck me with increasing force recently is not only the ways in which marriage has shifted, but also the fact that marriage now seems to be a two –track system.  The tracks parallel each other, but their realities are dramatically different.  One is affluent, educated, and influential, and knows very little about the other.  Those who travel this track generally marry, and they believe that everyone else should, too.  They make the laws and the policies for both tracks, but they have little understanding of those who travel the other track, or the shape their lives take.  The second track is poorer, less educated, and far less influential.  Though the numbers of people who travel this track are growing, they seem to live in the shadows.  People like me, anthropologists and sociologists who study culture and society, refer to the travelers on the second track as “extranuptial” or “nonconjugal” households.  That is, like Rochelle’s, they’re not based on marriage.

As a way of starting to get a handle on these families, let’s look at a few numbers.  First off, marriage in the US is declining.  Not only are people marrying later in their lives than they used to, but fewer people are marrying at all.  For example, in 2011, 51% of American women (over 15) were married, as opposed to 72% in 1960.  Another way to look at it is to note that in 2012 the marriage rate was 31 women (over 15) per 1,000. Compared to 92 per 1,000 in 1920.  And here are a few more numbers from the last couple of years:

Percentages of births to unmarried mothers:

African American 73%

Hispanic 53%

White ` 29%

Bachelor’s degree or more 7%

High school diploma or less 57%

 Family income for families of married and unmarried mothers:

Married Unmarried

Less than $30,000 19% 61%

$30,000-$45,000 10% 21%

$50,000 or more 62% 15%

It’s easy to see that Rochelle and her three children are part of a large group of similar households.  Clearly, the mothers in these families have relatively (or absolutely) little education, and thus they also have poorly paid jobs and low incomes.  They are also overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) people of color.  And the numbers of extranuptial households in all ethnic groups are going up. What’s going on?  Why are the numbers of extranuptial households steadily increasing?  What kinds of problems result from this household structure, and does it really constitute a problem, or just a choice of a way to live?  If it is a problem, what kinds of policies might help, and why haven’t we put them into effect already?  We’ll talk about this next time.


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