By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Punctuating a fundamental change in American family life, married couples with children now occupy fewer than one in every four households -- a share that has been slashed in half since 1960 and is the lowest ever recorded by the census.
As marriage with children becomes an exception rather than the norm, social scientists say it is also becoming the self-selected province of the college-educated and the affluent. The working class and the poor, meanwhile, increasingly steer away from marriage, while living together and bearing children out of wedlock.
"The culture is shifting, and marriage has almost become a luxury item, one that only the well educated and well paid are interested in," said Isabel V. Sawhill, an expert on marriage and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Marriage has declined across all income groups, but it has declined far less among couples who make the most money and have the best education. These couples are also less likely to divorce. Many demographers peg the rise of a class-based marriage gap to the erosion since 1970 of the broad-based economic prosperity that followed World War II.
"We seem to be reverting to a much older pattern, when elites marry and a great many others live together and have kids," said Peter Francese, demographic trends analyst for Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising firm.
In recent years, the marrying kind have been empowered by college degrees and bankrolled by dual incomes. They are also older and choosier. College-educated men and women are increasingly less likely to "marry down" -- that is, to choose mates who have less education and professional standing than they do.
Married couples living with their own children younger than 18 are also helping to drive a well-documented increase in income inequality. Compared with all households, they are twice as likely to be in the top 20 percent of income. Their income has increased 59 percent in the past three decades, compared with 44 percent for all households, according to the census.
As cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births increase among the broader population, social scientists predict that marriage with children will continue its decades-long retreat into relatively high-income exclusivity.
Jim and Michelle Fitzhenry live with their 5-year-old son, John Robert, in a four-bedroom house in a gated community high in the wooded hills west of Portland. Sixteen years ago, when Jim met Michelle, they fell in love because they liked each other's looks -- and loved each other's values.
"What attracted me to Michelle was her kindness and her honesty, but also her discipline, ambition and achievement," said Jim, who has a law degree and an MBA. He is a senior vice president at FLIR Systems, a Portland company that makes night-vision equipment.
Those same personality traits, Michelle said, drew her to Jim. She has a bachelor's degree in business administration and worked for a decade as an executive at Plum Creek Timber Co. in Seattle. The Fitzhenrys, who married 10 years ago, are an example of what sociologists call "assortative mating," the increasing tendency of educated, affluent people to unite in marriage.
When the Fitzhenrys married (he was 42, she was 32), it changed the way they managed their finances, which Jim said had been in a "death spiral" when they were single. Michelle quickly paid off $20,000 in credit-card debt. Jim cut up most of his credit cards and got rid of a BMW convertible.
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.
"The poor aren't entering into marriage very much at all," said Smock, who has interviewed more than 100 cohabitating couples. She said young people from these backgrounds often do not think they can afford marriage.
Arguments that marriage can mean stability do not seem to change their attitudes, Smock said, noting that many of them have parents with troubled marriages.
Victoria Miller and Cameron Roach, who have been living together for 18 months, are two such people, and they say they cannot imagine getting married.
She is 22 and manages a Burger King in Seattle. He is 24 and works part time testing software in the Seattle suburb of Redmond. Together, they earn less than $20,000 a year and are living with Roach's father. They cannot afford to live anywhere else.
"Marriage ruins life," Roach said. "I saw how much my parents fought. I saw how miserable they made each other."
Miller, who was pressured by her Mormon parents to marry when she was 17 and pregnant, said her short, failed marriage and her parents' long, failed marriage have convinced her that the institution is often bad for children. Shuttled between her mom and dad, she moved eight times before she was 16.
"With my parents, when th eir marriage started breaking down, my dad started to have trouble at work and we spent years on government assistance," Miller said.
Her two young sons live with their father.
"For most Americans, cohabitation will continue to increase over the coming decades, and the percentage of children born outside of marriage is also going to increase," Smock said.