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Numbers Drop for the Married With Children

The Fitzhenry family  --  Jim, Michelle and John Robert, 5  --  reaps the benefits of marriage, but their traditional setup is no longer the norm.
The Fitzhenry family -- Jim, Michelle and John Robert, 5 -- reaps the benefits of marriage, but their traditional setup is no longer the norm. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)

Among its many benefits, marriage raises the earnings of men and motivates them to work more hours. It also reduces by two-thirds the likelihood that a family will live in poverty, researchers have learned.

"Although we didn't plan it that way and we certainly didn't marry for money, it turned out that a byproduct of the values we both care about has been financial success," said Michelle, who places the couple's annual earnings between $350,000 and $400,000, much of which is invested conservatively.

The marital unions of high earners are a significant factor in the growth of income inequality since the 1970s, according to Gary Burtless, an economist at Brookings. His research attributes 13 percent of the increase in the nation's income inequality to such couples.

The Fitzhenrys said they had no idea marriage with children was becoming an elite institution. "By getting married and having a kid, we just assumed we were doing what everyone else in the country was doing," Jim said. "We thought we were normal."

As far as marriage with children is concerned, the post-World War II version of normal began to fall apart around 1970.

"Before then, if you looked at families across the income spectrum, they all looked the same: a mother, father, kids and a dog named Spot," said Sawhill, of the Brookings Institution.

Around that time, rates of divorce and cohabitation were rising sharply -- and widely publicized.

"What I don't think the public knew then or knows now is that well-educated, upper-middle-class professionals did not engage in these activities nearly as much as less-advantaged families," Sawhill said.

College-educated women, whose numbers have risen sharply since 1980, often live with a partner and postpone marriage. But in most cases, they eventually marry and have children, and divorce at about half the rate of women who do not finish high school.

While the marriage gap appears to be driven primarily by education and income, it does have a racial dimension.

Marriage and childbearing seem to be more "de-coupled" among black people than white people, with about a third of first births among white women coming before marriage, compared with three-quarters among black women, according to a recent review of research on cohabitation. As for children, the review found that 55 percent of blacks, 40 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of whites spend some of their childhood with cohabiting parents.

Class, though, is a much better tool than race for predicting whether Americans will marry or cohabit, said Pamela Smock, co-author of the review and a University of Michigan sociology professor.

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