Are Americans Becoming Too Poor to Marry?

Cristen Conger

A new study finds that marriage is becoming a more middle-class institution.
A new study finds that marriage is becoming a more middle-class institution.
Flickr/Philip Taylor PT

Here's a doozy of a claim: "Marriage is becoming a distinctive social institution marking middle-class status."

That comes from Sarah Corse, an associate professor of sociology at University of Virginia and lead author of a new study on the socioeconomics of marriage in the United States. Corse and other sociologists at Harvard surveyed 300 working-class and middle-class adults and found that recession-induced financial instabilities, such as job shortages, pension cuts and lack of affordable healthcare, have had a negative impact on the likelihood of marriage. And it isn't just a matter of whether a wedding will take place, the working-class participants were less likely to remain married for the long-term and have children within a marriage.

Corse thinks that this growing marriage gap between the working class and middle class has as much to do with drained emotional resources as it does with drained bank accounts:

"Working-class people with insecure work and few resources, little stability and no ability to plan for a foreseeable future become concerned with their own survival and often become unable to imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others. Insecure work changes peoples' non-work lives."

Harvard sociologist Jennifer Silva extrapolated this working-class shift away from marriage to the broader adult population. "Marriage has lost its relevance as a marker of adulthood," she said.

According to an August 2013 Gallup poll, marriage has lost some of its luster for younger Americans. Five percent of all adults polled weren't married and wanted their status to remain that way. Broken down by age group, 9 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds reported no desire for marriage, the largest proportion among the age groups, lending support to Silva's theory. However, 56 percent of unmarried 18- to 34-year-olds said they wished to marry someday, which means that while marriage may be becoming increasingly out of reach financially, it's still an aspirational life goal for many.