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'Marriage inequality' is more important than income inequality

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 10, 2013

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has released an interesting new study: Cohabitation and the Uneven Retreat from Marriage in the U.S., 1950-2010. It no surprise that the NBER finds cohabitation more commonplace in America today than in 1950. But the statistics show a revealing difference between socio-economic classes.

”The poor and less educated are much more likely to rear children in cohabitating relationships,” the NBER reports. “The college educated typically cohabit before marriage, but they marry before conceiving children and their marriages are relatively stable.” A brief description of the NBER working paper continues:

We argue that different patterns of child-rearing are the key to understanding class differences in marriage and parenthood, not an unintended by-product of it. Marriage is the commitment mechanism that supports high levels of investment in children and is hence more valuable for parents adopting a high-investment strategy for their children.

Two points are worth noticing here. First, married couples invest more (personally, emotionally, and spiritually as well as economically, I might add) in their children. Second, children profit from that investment, and consequently the children of married couples fare much better than their counterparts who are raised by unmarried parents. Does that sound obvious? It should. Yet somehow these fundamental facts about successful child-rearing have escaped the attention of policy-makers.

A child born into a wealthy family already has advantages over one born in poverty. Those advantages are compounded if the wealthy child has married parents while the poor child’s parents are cohabiting. Yet the NBER finds that this is a common pattern. So the rich get richer, and the poor slip further back in the competition. You can blame income inequality for that sad fact, but marriage inequality is a more important factor. You might also say—the NBER does almost say—that marriage inequality is a leading cause of income inequality.

The members of America’s educated elite are not angels; they are as likely as others to scoff at traditional moral codes. (Notice the NBER’s finding that the wealthy college graduates live together before they are married.) But they have learned that if you follow a few basic rules—get a good education, get married and stay married—your prospects for success in life are much better. Where did they learn those rules? At home, naturally, as part of the “investment” their parents made in their upbringing.

Charles Murray made a similar point in his book Coming Apart. The breakdown in traditional morality has had an unequal impact on America’s people. The wealthy and well educated still abide by the rules of the old moral order, even if they scoff at the ideas behind those rules, because they recognize that these rules define the path to success. The poor and ignorant, having no experience of success, disdain the old rules—often with the encouragement of elite leaders in the fields of education, information, and entertainment. And they suffer for it.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Sep. 25, 2013 3:20 PM ET USA

    What about the increase of co-habitators who have no intention of getting married, who don't believe in marriage, who find nothing wrong in their lifestyle, rich or poor or in between. As a society we are assuming that the co-habitators intend to get married and we talk about the statistics for staying married, but this is no longer true. More and more, marriage is not looked upon as desirable.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Sep. 13, 2013 8:01 PM ET USA

    I am surprised that you did not mention that the welfare system is designed to punish the poor if they marry and if they get jobs.

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