In his column this week at Al-Jazeera on inequality and marriage, David Cay Johnston uses our recent book, Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family, to show why marriage has become a class privilege. He suggests a variety of policies to promote investment in the next generation, policies that start to get at an issue we struggled with in the book (and that we thought would be an easy question): what role did the law play in the emerging class gulf in family formation, with the college graduates who have long been the leading champions of the sex revolution settling down into very traditional marriages while marriage seemed to be disappearing from working class communities that once espoused more conventional values?
Our initial inclination was to say not much. The first section of the book argued that the change in the economy and, particularly the disappearance of well-paying stable blue collar jobs for men, explained most of the shift in family form and, indeed, that the economic changes produced fairly predictable cultural changes that increased gender distrust and produced less reliance on marriage To be sure, we acknowledged Carl Schneider’s work two decades ago arguing that family law plays a “channelling function” in reinforcing shared notions of appropriate behavior. But, we also recognized that the class-based marriage divide is not about different norms; most Americans, regardless of race or class, expect to marry and value what marriage has to offer in similar ways. They differ primarily in whether they expect to find a suitable partner and a point in their lives where marriage makes sense.
As we dug deeper into the research, however, we ultimately did come to a different conclusion: a conclusion that the law does matter and has something to do with the decision about whether it makes sense to marry a particular partner. Read More