Class and Marriage: A Reverse

It’s long been a trope of the “culture war” that the rich as social and religious libertines while the stolid middle class cling to traditional values. Or, as another portion of America sees it, that the educated elite have moved beyond the primative and prejudices social mores of the past while the uneducated cling to their guns and their religion. I would venture to say that for many of us reading here this may also to a stereotype which fits with our lived experience.

However, a report out from the Institute for American Values stands this set of stereotypes somewhat on its head, showing a educated elite which is going to church more and sleeping around less, while the broad middle class is going to church less, having more children out of wedlock and getting divorced more often.

One thing to keep in mind in looking at this is that the report’s definition of the broad middle class is all those adults who have completed high school but have not completed a four year college degree (people with just a high school diploma, an AA or “some college”). This makes up 58% of the US population — something which I find myself liable to forget since not getting at bachelor’s degree was virtually unthinkable in my family. Both my parents had been the first in their families to earn college degrees and they believed very strongly in the importance of higher education. But while Dad’s community college staff salary (plus 1-2 part time side jobs at a given time) put us squarely in the middle of the population by income demographic, this survey would have put us in the “highly educated” upper class — those with a four year college degree or beyond, making up roughly 30% of the US population. The “less educated” in this study are composed of those without a high school diploma. Thus, this is playing somewhat outside the set of class definitions which I normally think in terms of — which realistically are more like sub-divisions of the middle and upper middle classes.

Still, the data is fairly startling and speaks well for itself, which given a lack of time this morning, I will let it do.

Percentage of people who say they consider pre-marital sex to be “always wrong” by educational demographic, 1970s vs. 2000s:

Percentage of women who bear children out of wedlock by educational demographic, 1970s vs. 2000s:

Percentage of people aged 25 to 70 who are in an intact first marriage by educational demographic, 1970s vs. 2000s:

Percentage of people who say divorces should be made more difficult to obtain by educational demographic, 1970s vs. 2000s:

Percentage of people who “almost always” attend religious services at least once a week by educational demographic, 1970s vs. 2000s:

Ross Douthat has some interesting things to say on it.

I’m trying to formulate what this tells us about the state of our culture, but it’s certainly interesting. Thoughts?

[Updated to correct dropped chart titles]

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  1. It’s still comparing those went graduated college in the 70’s (low 20%) to those who graduated in the 2000’s (30%). In other words, the “highly educated” now includes some in the middle class.

  2. I suspect that one reason marriage is less frequent and divorce and unwed motherhood are more frequent among the lower/middle classes is simply the fact that single parenthood in and of itself perpetuates poverty, limits educational opportunities, deprives children of stable adult role models with intact marriages, and to some extent, limits one’s ability to be an active churchgoer.

    A child who grows up in a single parent home in which the parent (for the sake of simplicity I’ll assume it’s the mother) works long and sometimes unpredictable hours, doesn’t make much money, doesn’t have time or energy to help the child with homework, and doesn’t attend church on Sunday for various reasons (from lack of transportation to just plain being worn out on weekends) probably won’t grow up to attend church or graduate from college.

    If he or she doesn’t have a father and most of his or her peers don’t have two-parent families, then the child grows up assuming that two-parent families are outside of the norm, or that only rich people can attain them (this is particularly true when society and the media places great emphasis on financial and career stability as a prerequisite for marriage).

    If a lot of the people the child knows have kids out of wedlock, then he or she assumes that to be normal and more likely than not, does the same thing. Then the downward cycle continues into the next generation.

    Meanwhile, children who grow up in two-parent, married, churchgoing families are less likely to be poor, do better in school and are more likely to complete college. They pass on the same expectations to their children. With each generation, the percentage of religiously observant, married persons with traditional sexual mores grows. This is because the traditional family structure (surprise, surprise!) tends to produce disciplined, stable and productive citizens.

  3. I wonder how applicable the comments of Ross Douthat earlier this year might be applicable to these findings:

    “Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed. The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term. Over all, the abortion rate is twice as high in New York as in Texas and three times as high in Massachusetts as in Utah.

    So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.

    Whether it’s attainable for most Americans or not, the “blue family” model clearly works: it leads to marital success and material prosperity, and it’s well suited to our mobile, globalized society.

    By comparison, the “red family” model can look dysfunctional — an uneasy mix of rigor and permissiveness, whose ideals don’t always match up with the facts of contemporary life.

    But it reflects something else as well: an attempt, however compromised, to navigate post-sexual revolution America without relying on abortion. ”


  4. Overall this is just a reflection of the devastation of our society by liberal moral concepts. That it is spreading to the middle and lower classes while fading a bit in the upper class doesn’t really alter the fact that no one so much as blinks when they hear of an unmarried girl getting pregnant; and when was the last time that anyone felt that divorce was a shame? In the end, relentless propaganda in favor of pre-marital sex and divorce has led to more pre-marital sex and divorce.

    We’ve, at best, about half the population living lives of sobriety, hard work and thrift. We can’t sustain very much more social disintegration. The line must be drawn and we must start to battle back to the old moral values.

  5. It’s almost as if some of these educated people woke up one morning, looked at the society they had created, and perhaps after seeing an episode of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich and said in bewildered tones, “wow, ideas have consequences.”

    They made a desert – a moral and spiritual desert – and called it peace. But now the party is over and the corpses are starting to stink.

  6. A couple of hypotheses to consider:

    1. Fr. Paul Mankowski’s observation that the clergy have been losing their rapport with the wage-earning population, making congregations a bourgeois preserve. If I understand him correctly, he is referring to an intramural process derived from how clergy are recruited, trained, and formed. We might consider that the process is at work in the protestant congregations as well as the Church.

    2. Getting married in today’s world requires one lay aside some of one’s normal risk aversion. Husbands and fathers are treated as redundant and disposable to a far greater degree than was the case sixty years ago and their willingness to invest in family life has corresponding diminished. This problem one might speculate is simply more acute among wage-earners, who are less valued by women.

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