Women and men, haves and have-nots

Contribution by Stephanie Coontz

The theme of this June’s PopTech conference in Iceland, the need for resilience, follows logically from last October’s theme of realignment. I have been doing a lot of thinking about both these issues recently in relation to trends in family life. In my last two presentations at PopTech conferences I described the realignment of marriage norms and male-female relationships as women’s legal rights inside marriage and socioeconomic options outside it have expanded. Both trends have been good news for millions of people around the world.

But undercutting the generally positive direction of these changes has been a disturbing realignment of class relations. Almost everywhere we see a widening gap between rich and poor, and a collapse of traditional working-class routes to economic security. The growing economic and financial stresses facing traditional working-class communities have depleted their reserves of resilience and sources of renewal.

The widening gap between the haves and have-nots goes beyond access to material security. It is also evident in access to stable personal and familial relationships. Among economically secure individuals, there has been a marked increase in gender equity, a decline in family violence, and an increase in the time parents spend cultivating their children’s minds and bodies. But economically insecure individuals now find it harder to establish and maintain stable families and community networks. 

In the United States in the 1960s, for example, marriage rates differed little by education and income level. Today there is a 16 percentage point gap between college graduates (64 percent married) and people with a high school diploma or less (just 48 percent). And the family patterns of high school graduates increasingly resemble those of high school dropouts.

Today, in contrast to the past, well-educated women are now more likely to marry than their poorly-educated counterparts, and their divorce rates have been falling for 30 years. But people without a college degree divorce at more than three times the rate of college-educated Americans, they move in and out of cohabiting relationships more frequently, and their out-of-wedlock birthrates have risen precipitously. In 2006-08, the majority of births to women without a high school diploma were out of wedlock, and 44 percent of births to mothers with only a high school diploma were to unwed women.

Part of this is because the economic gains made in recent decades by women, modest as they may be, have combined with economic stagnation or decline for less-educated men to make marriage a riskier proposition for women in low-income communities. Forty years ago, marrying almost any man would be economically better for a woman than going it alone. In that era, the average earnings for a female college graduate with a full-time job were less than the average for a male high school graduate. For most women, a man with a high school degree was a pretty good catch.

Today, however, the job and income prospects of young men without a college degree have fallen significantly. By 2007 - before the recession - employed 25- to 29-year-old men with a high school degree made an average of almost $4 less per hour (in constant dollars) than their counterparts in 1979. They were also three times more likely to experience job loss or benefit cuts than in the past.

This poses working-class and poor women with a dilemma. A second income and a reliable partner would  be a big help. But if the man loses his job or turns out to be unreliable, a woman may be worse off than if she remained single and focused on improving her own earnings power. The ready availability of divorce, while a blessing to many women (it is almost certainly responsible for a good part of the decline in domestic violence over the past 30 years), also ups the stakes for a poor woman and her children, who are often financially worse off  after a divorce than those who remain single.

The uneven accumulation of interpersonal as well as economic resources creates a vicious cycle, counteracting some of the positive trends in family life. The very people who would benefit most from a stable marriage are understandably the most cautious about entering marriage, but economic practicalities often encourage them to enter cohabiting relationships that are even less stable than marriage. Similarly, the rise of two-earner families has increased the incidence of egalitarian marriages, fostered greater paternal involvement with children, and improved child well-being. But it has also exacerbated socioeconomic inequality as single-income families fall behind.

Here’s hoping that all the innovative minds populating PopTech conferences can come up with solutions to these new dilemmas.

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