Sorry, Marriage Is a 'Luxury Good'

Today, the poor aren't just more likely to get divorced. They're more likely to avoid marriage entirely.

Earlier today, my colleague Derek Thompson argued that it's misleading to think of marriage as a "luxury good." Why? Because luxury goods are something the rich buy and the poor can't afford. But in the case of marriage the trend is more complex. The vast majority of Americans tie the knot at some point in their lives, he argues. It's just that those without a college education are far, far more likely to get divorced. Marriage is for everyone; failed marriages are for the poor. 

Bleak stuff. But it's getting bleaker.

Derek's post is based on a long-term study of young Baby Boomers, who were at least 46 years old by 2010. But among younger Americans, marriage really is looking more and more like something you'd have to buy at Tiffany's. The proof is in the graph below, which shows the percentage of men who have never married by age and income, based on a 2012 Census Bureau report. To put it simply, the less a guy earns nowadays, the less likely they are to have ever been hitched.  

Well, that's not 100 percent true. Among twenty-somethings there seems to be a rich bachelor effect going on (or an overworked young professional effect, if you prefer). Those making $75,000 or more are somewhat less likely to have been married than those making between $40,000 and $75,000. 

This particular set of Census data unfortunately tells us much less about women and marriage. The problem: Stay-at-home moms.  

First, here's the graph. The class differences seem much more muted, right? 

The key to remember, though, is that many educated, high-earning women, the sorts who are likely to meet and marry educated and high-earning men, leave the workforce or go part time once they have children. So a publicist who once made over $70,000 a year might show up on this chart as only earning $20,000 if she decided to work fewer hours while caring for her children at home. If we were to track what women earned before marriage, my guess is it would probably look more like the diagonal slope on the men's graph. 

Here's why this trend—not just the move towards divorce like Derek talked about, but the move from nuptials entirely—is so gloomy. Getting married, and staying married, is one of the surest ways of securing a middle class life. By choosing not to wed in the first place, the poor are abandoning that chance at stability. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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