Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family


In their new book Marriage Markets, law professors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn point out perhaps the single most important fact about the state of 21st century American marriage: it’s bifurcating.

It is not just that marriage among the poor has disappeared, although it has.  It is not just that marriage is declining dramatically among the middle third of American society, although it is.  Divorce rates continue to rise and out of wedlock births are becoming the new middle-American normal.

The amazing, unaddressed paradox of marriage in our times that these scholars set out to investigate is: why is marriage strengthening in the top third while it is simultaneous disintegrating not only among the poor, but in the broad non-college-educated middle class?  Why is marriage getting weaker and stronger at the same time in different social classes?

These scholars reject norms as a primary cause of marriage decline to focus attention on the collapse of wages in the middle third of the American economy. The jobs that used to sustain the married family in the middle third aren’t there, and in this they are right: Wage stagnation is hurting the family. In college-educated American, husbands still make at least as much as their wives, and often much more. This gives married mothers options: a very supportive second income and pair of hands and/or a neo-traditional marriage where they can cut back on work or stay home to care for children.  Without jobs that pay a family wage, few men make good husbands.

But to date these scholars also fail to focus on the next weird and strange paradox their data are pointing to: the same jobs are open to both men and women.  Why are middle-third women, especially new mothers, responding to the collapse of marriage by radically increasing their work effort and their efforts to educationally upgrade while the men they are having babies with refuse to “step up”?

Marriage Markets is a book worth reading, pondering and discussing.  The collapse of the middle-class wage is the unsung tragedy of our generation.  But to understand the collapse of marriage in middle America we also have to face, explore and understand the new most pressing question: how do we motivate boys and young men to want to become the kind of hardworking, appreciative, and responsible husbands and fathers women want to marry—and how do we do so in a way that women love rather than resent as patriarchal and oppressive?

How do we motivate the men?

Marriage is a two-gender problem. How do we craft a script about sex, gender, parenting and marriage that strikes both men and women as a good deal and as a social ideal?  Then how do we make sure our economic, political and legal structures support and reinforce that script?

The alternative is living with the consequences of unscripted sexuality and gender, the unmarriage culture, which is the new middle-class reality. Carbone and Cahn believe if you can create more, higher wage, middle class jobs, marriage will be better off. They are right, provided those jobs motivate men at least as much as young women.