It seems insensitive to admit it, but this pandemic hasn’t been too hard on my family. My husband and I already worked from home with our toddler, and our income, such as it is (we are writers), has not yet shrunk. Our legume-heavy diet was apocalypse-proof, and our budget had already made restaurants the stuff of memory. Sure, our view of the future is obscured by a haze of anxiety and dread, but our present could certainly be worse.
We are not alone. No one claims to be gliding through this strange and alarming moment, but there are all sorts of silver-lining stories about families bonding over shared meals and inescapably shared space. Although most of the cooking, cleaning, and homeschooling has fallen to mothers (many of whom have left their jobs or cut their hours), fathers report cleaning more dishes and enforcing more rules (though perhaps not as many as they think). My friends, most of whom have spouses and young kids, kvetch about juggling work and child care in cramped quarters, but also send me proud snapshots of their drawings, gardening projects, and fresh-baked bread. “This time is a gift,” one friend recently told me. “There’s something about ‘making do’ right now, about having the family come together to help each other, that has made us all very close.”
My mostly married, mostly professional social circle seems especially well placed to weather the coronavirus storm. Their good fortune is buttressed by data: Married couples entered the pandemic healthier and wealthier than their unmarried peers, which may help explain why counties with more married households have seen fewer infections. Domestic violence is less common among spouses than unmarried partners, and married adults have reported fewer feelings of loneliness than those who are single, divorced, separated, or cohabiting. Married couples also tend to live in single-family homes, which makes any kind of quarantine more bearable.
While the pandemic has made things harder for just about everyone, being married seems to have made the new normal more manageable. Yet a declining share of Americans enjoy the perks of wedlock. In 2018, the number of adults getting hitched reached its lowest point in more than a century, and the coronavirus threatens to depress these numbers further. As the poor face disease, unemployment, and eviction, and as the risk of infection keeps many single people from pursuing new relationships, marriage in the United States will probably become an even more unlikely and unequal institution.
Some marriage advocates hope that COVID-19, in the long run, will inspire more people to trade vows as a kind of insurance against uncertainty. “I think every family affected by this will recognize the merits of having two parents instead of one,” W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and the director of the National Marriage Project, told me. He predicts that the crisis will lead couples to reassess their priorities and work harder to create stable homes for their children. “The whole adult-centered, me-first model of family life died on March 13th. What will emerge is a kind of family-first model of marriage, where kids and kin are paramount.”
Talk of fortifying unions and sturdy kinship bonds might sound pragmatic at a time when the government and the economy have failed so many Americans. But pointing to the stability of married couples to highlight the benefits of marriage makes a fundamental mistake of causation. In America today, people aren’t more privileged because they’re married; they’re married because they’re more privileged.
Most Americans of all demographics aspire to be married one day, but even before the pandemic, the prospect for many felt all too remote. Up until the 1970s, American families looked similar across socioeconomic levels. But with the rise of globalization, the decline of unions, and the shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, there’s been a sharp fall in good jobs for Americans without a college degree. The work available has grown more precarious, with less money and fewer benefits such as health care and paid leave. These changes have helped create a class divide in marriage.
Studies regularly show that Americans usually need a solid job before they have the confidence to tie the knot, and financial stability makes marriages stronger. While college graduates are now more likely to both get and stay married than people with less education, the marriage rates among middle-class and poor Americans have been in decline, in part because economic insecurity makes it hard to plan for the future. Many couples are still having children, but those with only a high-school degree are unlikely to be married first. More than 40 percent of American children are now born to unmarried mothers, double the percentage in 1980.
All of this has created what Erez Aloni, an associate professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia, calls a “marital wealth gap.” He notes that marriage is already largely the preserve of the prosperous, and all sorts of systems—including Social Security benefits, estate laws, and health insurance—help married couples create and retain wealth. “In the U.S., there are over 1,000 legal directives attached to marriage, and these economic incentives mostly profit those who are already better off,” Aloni told me. While the wealthy enjoy financial benefits after a wedding, poor Americans might be penalized, since marriage makes it harder for households to qualify for federal assistance.
Conservative lawmakers, organizations, and writers often use marriage patterns to blame poor people for their poverty, despite the fact that more than half of low-income American households with children are headed by a married couple. And many states divert federal welfare funds to programs that promote two-parent households—such as abstinence-only sex ed and pro-marriage advertising—instead of providing cash assistance directly to poor families. This practice is more common in states with a larger share of Black families. Zach Parolin, who wrote a study on the subject, noted in The Atlantic last year that “closing the racial differences in states’ use of TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] funds would narrow the black-white child-poverty gap by up to 15 percent.”
This pandemic is exacerbating these structural inequities, doling out the most damage to couples and families who are already worse-off economically. Households led by cohabiting parents are almost twice as likely as those headed by married parents to be poor, and mother-only homes are the poorest of all. These are the households that have been hardest hit by the current crisis. By mid-May, nearly 40 percent of workers in homes earning less than $40,000 had lost their jobs, compared with 13 percent of those in homes making more than $100,000. For poor and middle-class Americans, who had already taken much longer than richer households to recover from the Great Recession, this is an enormous setback.
It’s also part of a vicious cycle: The same economic forces that have disproportionately harmed unmarried Americans during the pandemic are pushing marriage even further out of reach. Some obstacles are logistical: Couples are canceling weddings, and many single people are isolated at home; in Las Vegas, the so-called wedding capital of the world, the sale of marriage licenses was down nearly 90 percent in June. But the most daunting barriers are structural. The industries hit hardest by COVID-19 are those that employ low-wage workers, and reports estimate that it will take more than a decade for the economy to recover. Rising unemployment and dwindling savings may spur some couples to move in together, but cohabiters of convenience rarely last.
It would be nice if marriage was indeed a solution to poverty. A quick visit to the altar seems a small price to pay for social mobility. But it is misguided to hope that stories of nuclear-family togetherness during the pandemic will inspire more people to see the value of marriage. Most Americans hardly need convincing.