The common conservative lament is true: marriage is in retreat in America, and the traditional family is becoming less common. The old conservative warning is also proving true: this retreat from marriage is bad for children and for unmarried adults.
Contrary to some conservative assumptions, though, it’s not the liberal elites who are saying, “I don’t.” It’s the working class in “Real America.” And, ironically, the whole situation confirms an aphorism Hillary Rodham Clinton made famous: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
A debate rages over the causes and effects of the retreat from marriage. Some say bad economic conditions for the working class are causing it. Others blame changing social norms. The truth is a blend of both. What has killed the norm of marriage in the working class is mostly the erosion of community, which itself has centered in working-class places.
Political scientists like Robert Putnam and Charles Murray have tracked America’s dwindling community strength and consistently found it centered in working-class places.
America’s elites still enjoy strong communities, planted thick with institutions—even if they call it “networking,” and don’t view it as anything special. In places where college degrees are rare and where factory jobs used to dominate, though, the little leagues, the swim clubs, the rotary clubs, and most of all the churches are fading away, delivering a death blow to family formation.
These local institutions serve as necessary support structures for families. This is obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to raise children. Community, which can seem merely a nice thing to have when you’re a singleton in your twenties, becomes indispensable when you take on the difficult and crucial work of marriage and childrearing.
Community provides miniature safety nets: local institutions like strong schools, sports teams, and swim clubs lift a bit of the burden of rearing kids off the backs of Mom and Dad. And strong communities provide adult company for parents who otherwise spend their free time with their children, who do not always provide the most intellectually stimulating conversation. Finally, community also sets expectations that a couple will get married before they have a baby, or at least soon afterward.
That expectation has disappeared in the working class in the U.S. today. While two-thirds of college-educated adults are married, that’s true of only half of those who never went to college.
Women who don’t attend college are also more likely to give birth outside of marriage than in marriage. Among women with college degrees, the out-of-wedlock birthrates look like they did in 1960: less than 1 in 10.
Those gaps were smaller or nonexistent in 1960. Notably, social scientists have found that in 1960, community bonds were more equally distributed among the classes. Also, America was less geographically segregated by income back then.
So, are poor economic prospects causing the retreat from marriage? Or is it the opposite—is the retreat from marriage undermining economic prospects in the working class?
Scholars like Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution argue for the latter, asserting that marriage helps reduce poverty.
Others have also found that marriage causes higher wages. Take two men of the same age, the same level of education, the same race, in the same region of the country—and the married man makes a lot more (possibly as much as $16,000 per year), according to a 2014 study by Brad Wilcox and Robert Lerman. This finding has been replicated again and again, including by a 2014 study of identical twins that found that the married twin makes 27% more than his brother. This suggested “that marriage causes men’s wages to rise,” the authors concluded.
The counter-argument has evidence, too. MIT economist David Autor found that the disappearance of manufacturing jobs precedes a decline in marriage rates. “[M]anufacturing jobs are a fulcrum on which traditional work and family arrangements rest,” Autor concluded.
Fewer reliable jobs, less marriage, and less civil society are all manifestations of the same phenomenon: life for the working class is becoming deinstitutionalized.
This explanation makes historical sense. Marriage was a norm in the 1950s and 1960s when good factory jobs were plentiful. The norm has died since the late 1960s because working-class men can’t find steady, high-paying jobs. Women, seeing a rise in employment and wages in that period, have less reason to marry working-class men, and working-class adults of both sexes have less reason to believe they can raise a family.
The data here strongly suggest causality, but the causal arrows on different studies point in different directions.
One clue to lead us back to community strength lies in another interesting detail in Autor’s data: the retreat from marriage was localized. That is, your physical place in the world, and not merely your education and income level, predicted marriage. This shows that something is happening in these blue-collar places where marriage and prosperity seem to be waning.
To untangle the cause and effect here, we need to look at a blue-collar place that nonetheless has a lot of money. Those are increasingly rare, but they exist—thanks to fracking. A few years back, I traveled to Williston, North Dakota, a hotspot of the fracking boom.
DK’s Lounge is notorious for fights, but the bartender there told me that fights are only on pay day, when the young men feel rich. “Usually it’s about girls,” Chris Duell told me over a Budweiser. Chris, in dire straits a few years back, left Michigan and came to Williston, where he launched a drinking-water distributorship, now raking in a million a year. Another customer at DK’s had traveled by bus from California with his dad to find a job—and did, at $18 an hour.
“Everyone in here has a wad,” Kel, a DK's patron and a beneficiary of the fracking boom, told me.
That’s why economists Melissa Kearney and Riley Wilson of the University of Maryland studied similar fracking towns from Texas to Pennsylvania. Does boosting the wages of blue-collar men also boost marriage? If it did, this would strengthen the case that income determines marriageability.
But that’s not what happened. “[I]n response to local-area fracking production,” Kearney and Wilson found, “both marital and non-marital births increase and there is no evidence of an increase in marriage rates.” Furthermore, they concluded, “We find no evidence to support the proposition that as the economic prospects of less educated men improves, couples are more likely to marry before having children.”
While Autor’s study suggested the disappearance of good blue-collar jobs reduced blue-collar marriage, Kearney’s findings indicated that the appearance of lucrative blue-collar jobs didn’t necessarily increase blue-collar marriage.
There’s something deeper than just economics in these blue-collar places that undermine marriage. You can sniff it out if you visit Williston’s mancamps.
Mancamps are sprawling warrens of modern trailers that oil companies use to house hundreds of men in a large barren field. Each man had his own small, modern room, usually with his own flat-screen television, and a bathroom he shared with a couple of other guys.
One mancamp I visited had a big (also temporary) building that served as the common room, with carpeted rooms full of recliners and big couches, Ping-Pong tables, air hockey, and massive TVs, plus, of course, an all-you-can-eat hot buffet running most of the day.
This land of cash and basic pleasures was not a real community. Mancamps were no place to raise kids, just a place to trade labor for cash. The work schedule often involved 11 days on, with long hours, followed by three days off. The men didn’t have to get themselves to work because the bus took them from the camp to the job site. And their time off work was entirely their own.
Job restoration alone cannot instantly restore the local community institutions that support marriage—like churches, clubs, and local meeting places. These take time to re-emerge organically.
Kearney and Wilson found the same effect in the fracking towns of Texas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, where their study focused and where the migration wasn’t as dramatic. A return to marriage doesn’t result from simply introducing good blue-collar jobs into places that don’t already have the infrastructure for supporting families.
Fracking created something of a natural experiment, then: isolating the two variables—money and community—that typically go together in America today. If we don’t start with the community, the money doesn’t bring the family formation.
Autor’s study showed that the disappearance of jobs in a place led to a retreat from marriage in that place. This is true, but it skips a step: the factory closure is often the first domino to fall. The second domino to fall may be the coffeehouse next door—a complementary businesses that also serves as a community hub. Then people move out, and one of the churches closes. The old parishioners don’t want to go to the parish a town over, and so they stay home on Sunday. Social isolation spreads. The chain reaction, one by one, takes out the local institutions of civil society.
Tipping over the first domino can cause a chain reaction but standing the first one back up doesn’t cause the opposite reaction. Similarly, the death of blue-collar jobs can kill a community fairly quickly, but bringing back those jobs doesn’t bring back marriage. That’s because job restoration alone cannot instantly restore the local community institutions that support marriage—like churches, clubs, and local meeting places. These take time to re-emerge organically.
Pinning the retreat of marriage on the collapse of community jibes perfectly with Autor’s findings on factory towns. We shouldn’t think of the lost factory as simply a lost source of money, but also as an institution of civil society. The factory (and often the local union) provided the same sort of support, purpose, and modeling as the church and the Kiwanis Club.
Joe Adams made that clear to me. Joe was a General Electric worker who had been laid off from a refrigerator plant when I met him, and he was also the vice president of the local union in Bloomington, Indiana. He shared how confused he felt, as a high school graduate, when a GE official asked him if he had factory experience. Wasn’t this unskilled labor?
What they meant, Joe learned, was “Are you gonna be here, on time, every day? Are you experienced with the mundane? Can you stand to do the same thing again and again?”
These skills, if you think about it, are the basic skills of marriage and fatherhood. Are you reliable, honest, and patient? Can you delay gratification? Do you see the value in self-sacrifice? Are you willing to give decades of your life to your family?
Good factory jobs rewarded and cultivated these skills, which are best called “virtues.” This is what community institutions do. Such institutions used to exist in places of all income and education levels. They are now a luxury good.
Fewer reliable jobs, less marriage, and less civil society are all manifestations of the same phenomenon: life for the working class is becoming deinstitutionalized. The collapse of community exacerbates poverty as adults lose the training grounds and support structures for both reliable work and family. This further weakens community, creating a vicious cycle, and yielding places in Middle America where the lack isn’t merely money—the real lack is the infrastructure around which people can build a family and a good life.
Editor's Note: This essay is adapted from the book, Alienated America by Timothy P. Carney (Copyright 2019 by Timothy P. Carney). It has been published with permission from Harper Books and HarperCollins Publishers.