“Unmarried With Kids: A Shift In The Working Class”

Posted By on December 6, 2010

NPR ran this report on its Morning Edition show, and I sat up to listen. While providing a lot of new statistical information, the piece doesn’t ask or answer some key questions. First, here’s the meat of the report:

The path to adulthood used to be clear — love, marriage, baby carriage — and no one embodied that more than America’s working class. But today, for those with only a high school education, that order no longer holds; in fact, a new study suggests that marriage is foundering in Middle America….

A new study by the National Marriage Project finds 44 percent of those with high school diplomas but no college degrees now have children without being married. That’s more than triple what it was in the 1970s. And we’re not talking teen mothers; half of those nonmarital births were to couples living together….“A lot of people, I think, see marriage as a piece of paper,” says Mellissa. “A piece of paper that costs a lot of money to change.” She laughs and explains that she means divorce….

And Brad Wilcox, who heads the National Marriage Project, says that for three decades, men especially have seen their wages stagnate.

“And that makes them less attractive both in their eyes and in the eyes of their partners, as husbands,” says Wilcox. “Both in terms of thinking about getting married, but also in terms of staying married.”

Wilcox’s study finds divorce up among the working class, even as it’s fallen for the college educated. The recession, he says, has only exacerbated the problem, hitting lower-wage jobs hardest. Culturally, it’s certainly much more acceptable to have children without being wed. But there’s still an argument for marriage: Wilcox says unmarried parents are more than twice as likely to break up by the time their child is 5….

Wilcox worries: Could marriage become a privilege only for the educated elite?

But wait a minute. If financial concerns are keeping people from getting married, the logic doesn’t hold. Isn’t a child more expensive than a spouse?

“A child is more expensive,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and author of The Marriage Go-Round. “What I think is happening is that a lot of young adults these days think that having a kid is absolutely necessary and something you don’t put off until someday in the future when you might be able to marry.”

There are a lot of things going on here; lots of numbers and figures. But some questions aren’t being asked about this new trend.

First, is the anti-marriage, unwed childbearing trend tied solely to lower economic expectations, or are the pollsters looking at a generation of high schoolers who have been brought up to see marriage as disposable and unnecessary? In other words, is this survey divided along college degree/non-college degree lines, or is there a larger generational shift that has taken place that separates Gen X from Gen Y or Gen Next?

Secondly, I would really have liked to hear the interviewer follow up on the illogical notion that a couple can afford to move in together and have a child but cannot afford to get married. If you listen to the audio version of this report, you’ll hear “Melissa” talk about how she wanted the whole fairy tale wedding with all the trimmings and wasn’t willing to settle for less, because it would be so important for her son to have a photo album of his parents’ wedding–a big, white-dress affair with all the trimmings. Getting married at a courthouse or with a simple religious ceremony wasn’t an option. This admission floored me. I had to listen to the report twice to be sure I’d heard right. What I heard was a fundamental disconnect. Marriage is equated with “big wedding” (i.e. huge expense) rather than with “lifelong commitment” and all that goes with that, including stable, married parents for children. Which is more important for a child: having a big photo album of Mommy and Daddy’s expensive wedding, or having Mommy and Daddy together? To ask the question is to answer it.

At the beginning of the report, the first interviewee talked about marriage being “a piece of paper that costs a lot of money to change”–meaning she didn’t want to get into marriage because it might not work out and she’d have to pay to go through a divorce. She is willing to live with a man and have him father her child as long as he can just walk away without it costing money to hire lawyers. This is flabbergasting. What about the emotional and spiritual costs? What about the terrible burden this places on the child if his parents split up? What about the costs to those children’s future marriages, which are much harder to build when no solid foundation of faithful, stable marriage has been laid in childhood as a model?[1]

It’s important to note here that we’re not talking about legitimate divorces. Yes, there are cases where divorce is the only option. Abandonment and abuse kill marriage. But we aren’t dealing with cases like this as we examine this trend. We’re seeing a fundamental shift in attitudes towards marriage in the first place. If marriage has become a “piece of paper” or a fairy-tale wedding photo, then it’s no big loss. But marriage is far more than that. Marriage is a lifelong union of two different people who commit to walk together, navigating life’s bumps and hairpin turns and confusing mazes…with each other. Marriage was “instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church,” as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer affirms. Marriage is a wonderful mystery–a breathtaking picture of two unique, separate human beings joining their differences into one glorious whole. Marriage isn’t something man just invented for fun. It’s definitely not about a Brides magazine version of reality, where people spend tens of thousands of dollars to throw a one-day party.

And the blame for this shift lies, I believe, squarely at the feet of Christians. We can’t blame the culture for robbing marriage of its meaning. We are supposed to build the culture; not have it build us. Culture is the outworking of what we believe–what we hold as true. Dr. George Grant explains this in a 2007 blog post:

Culture is simply a worldview made evident. It is basic beliefs worked out into habits of life. It is theology translated into sociology. Culture is a very practical expression of the common faith of a community or a people or a nation. Culture is, as Henry Van Til famously quipped, “religion externalized.”

What a person thinks, what he believes, what shapes his ultimate concerns, and what he holds to be true in his heart—in short, his faith or lack of it—has a direct effect on his material well-being, behavior, and outlook; on his sense of what is good, true, and beautiful; on his priorities, values, and principles. After all, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”…

All too often the modern men and women either flounder in a dismal fatalism or we squander our few resources in an irresponsible impulsiveness. Many of us are terribly short-sighted, unmotivated, and naive. And “where there is no vision the people perish.” On the other hand, genuine faith provokes us to live thoughtfully, to plan, to exercise restraint, and to defer gratification in order to achieve higher ends. We are induced to self-control, wisdom, and careful stewardship in order to build for the future.

Bartok Havic, the great Czech historian, has said, “History’s record is clear: a people who cannot look past the moment, past the fleeting pleasures of fleshly indulgence, will be a people whose culture vanishes from the face of the earth. Ultimately, only faith gives men a sustaining vision for that which is other than their own selfish desires.”

Christians have devalued and cheapened marriage. Our divorce rate is identical to that of unchurched people. There is simply no excuse for this. As “people of the Book,” we should know better. But we have become short-sighted and present-oriented, and our culture crumbles around us. Who will pick up the pieces for all these children born to parents who refuse to commit to each other and feel free to walk away when the pressure (financial, emotional, whatever) is too hard to bear? Who will hold men accountable for abandoning their children if we’ve basically given them a “get out of jail free” card at the outset? Marriage is greater than ourselves. It involves more than just two individuals. Marriage isn’t something we can dispose of at a whim. We simply cannot afford to conduct such an experiment on the next generation. The costs are too great.


[1] “The risk of divorce is 50 percent higher when one spouse comes from a divorced home, and 200 percent higher risk when both of them do, says Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah and author of Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages.” (http://articles.cnn.com/2010-09-22/living/divorced.parents.children.marriage_1_divorce-rate-nicholas-wolfinger-divorce-court?_s=PM:LIVING)

About The Author

Mrs. Chancey is the mother of 12 children, all of whom keep the household bubbling with life, learning, and levity. Jennie co-founded LAF in 2002 with Lydia Sherman and has been delighted to hear from women all over the world who enjoy their femininity and love to cultivate womanly virtues.


13 Responses to ““Unmarried With Kids: A Shift In The Working Class””

  1. Renee Stam says:

    Very interesting, I think that how the society has changed its view about marriage has changed in some way how Christians view marriage. It seams that people are waiting longer to get married or dating for a long long long time or change partners but are afraid to commit!

  2. It’s a vicious cycle, kind of like “which came first; the chicken or the egg?” In this case, I think Christians started the cycle by failing to preach and teach on what marriage really is; failing to train their children (primarily by example); and by giving up on marriage in ever greater numbers themselves. Because God defines marriage. we, of all people, should be the ones illustrating His definition through faithful, lifelong marriage. We have a lot of lost ground to regain…

  3. EFarrer says:

    Wow! Very interesting. I’ll have to go listen to the story. You ask good questions. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Jennie, you wrote: “And the blame for this shift lies, I believe, squarely at the feet of Christians.” and later: “Christians have devalued and cheapened marriage. Our divorce rate is identical to that of unchurched people. There is simply no excuse for this. As “people of the Book,” we should know better. “
    and sadly, I couldn’t agree more. I can understand why all of our words about the “sanctity of marriage” fall on deaf ears to the world at large. My belief is that, as believers, we should focus our time, emotional energy and prayers on getting our own houses in order. Certainly this must be done before we have enough credibility to preach to the world about what the concept of marriage appropriately looks like. I’m not exactly sure how this is to be done.. heavens, I’m a believer with my own failed marriage.. but I sense that humility, repentance and prayer will be definite parts of the equation.
    Thank you for the sobering and thought provoking post.

  5. Julie Thompson says:

    I heard this story yesterday morning and had the same reaction as you, Jennie, to Melissa’s desire for a big wedding. My husband and I got married at the courthouse over 25 years ago. I’ve never understood the appeal of lavish, expensive weddings. They seem to put the focus on the wrong thing, the “event”, rather than on the lifetime commitment. And you are right; we Christians have cheapened marriage by being as quick as the world to break our vows. No wonder so many people think marriage is outdated and unimportant. They have no examples of its importance.

  6. Abbysmom says:


    I understand where you and your husband are coming from. When my husband and I were getting married (25 years on next May 31 BTW), we had the wedding we could afford, not one that would put us in hock for years. We found a lot of ways to cut costs and still have a nice church wedding and a great place for a reception. But while we were engaged, many people asked about how our wedding plans were going, how excited we must be about our wedding, etc. My fiance was tempted to say that we spent more time thinking about preparing for a marriage that would last for many, many years instead of a late afternoon wedding and then an evening reception that would be through by the end of the day at the latest.

    I have more to say, but no time now because I have to get to bed because I still have one more final exam to take tomorrow.

  7. momof5 says:

    I know the “Church” has had its part & been remiss in calling out sin~oh, we’ll turn a blind eye on your private life. Much to the chagrin of our society.
    “Judge not”…don’t you judge me!
    well…the time has come folks…we are in heap big trouble…just try keeping your kids away from it!
    Pray God’s Almighty hand on this country & the coming times. We are going to see Christ’s return but will face the music first, and it ain’t the Sugar Plum Fairy either…
    we have 32 years of marriage with 5 children & 6 great grandbabies~
    I do not see a nice world ahead.
    We so want it to be as it “was” but we cannot live as it was, only how it is..get busy you mommy’s & tell the truth so the children will stray away from sin!
    We want to live in a make believe world while the world is spinning into the muck.
    Don’t ignore truth for even one day! It is why we are at this point in our country’s heritage. A sad one indeed~

  8. momof5 says:

    A side note to my first comment…I am from a divorced world~both parents 3 different times! I lived thru it all. My husbands parents remained faithful to the other.
    We could have gone that route, but God has had other plans & we can both say we are glad we stuck it out…33 years here we come!

  9. Deanna Rabe says:

    I so agree with your analysis of this article…

    The statement by Melissa in the article plays out in every wedding show – it is all about the “party” and the flowers and dress and on and on….

    As the mother of an adult son who has a child out of wedlock, with a young lady whose parents lived together for 20 years but never married, we see how this is playing out in our culture.

    We believe in godly marriage, commitment to one another, building a godly family….my husband and I have been married nearly 23 years.

    I agree with Diane who stated that we as Christians need to get our own “houses” in order!

    Thanks for sharing this, Jennie.

  10. rejoicealways says:

    I have to agree with you Jennie that first it was the church in general turned a blind eye to people’s ‘private lives’. Culture starts with the heart and works it’s way out, whether it be an ungodly or a godly culture. It’s the church that stopped preaching about how divorce is sin and homosexuality an abomination to God (another topic altogether but indeed an example…).
    On another note, we got married 8 years ago, didn’t have a fancy wedding or wedding dress, or rings for that matter. We knew then we just wanted a nice day free of stress and that our commitment TO GOD and each other was what counted. At the time a number of friends were getting married with fancy weddings and ours was, well not fancy at all, just nice. Looking back, I am so glad we did things that way. We spent $6000 in total, had a good day with family and friends. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a fancy wedding, just have things in perspective and have your priorities straight. But often the marriages in the church LOOK like worldly weddings because of all the bells and whistles…and for some could this be a temptation? To have everything that LOOKS like a ‘perfect wedding’? Martha Stewart style?? That being said, I do think that it’s a huge celebration and it doesn’t hurt to have a beautiful wedding…as long as you’re not going into debt over it…

    Diane, I totally agree, we need to ‘get our own houses in order first’. And this starts with teaching in the home and teaching by example. Thanks everyone.

  11. Abbysmom says:

    A few years ago our rector said in a sermon that while homosexual unions and marriages were indeed a threat a to traditional marriage, when the rubber hits the road for most communities, and even more so, in most churches, divorce is a much more imminent threat.

  12. fedup says:

    With all due respect, your religion teaches that homosexuality is a sin and morally wrong. Loving, same sex couples, are not able to legally marry. Not unless they want to uproot their own lives, and the lives of their children, to move to a state where it is legal. Though I understand why it is, that the government would be oppossed to paying out more insurance claims, I hardly think it’s fair. How can we expect the marriage rate to increase, when we are denying a substantial amount of people from doing so?

  13. fedup, the whole point here is that “marriage” cannot be redefined to include just any arrangement someone wants to create. Marriage is a God-ordained institution between one man and one woman for life, usually producing children. It is a covenant–not a piece of paper. There are many other deep relationships that aren’t bound by marriage (friends, siblings, grandparents to grandchildren, etc.). But, as the survey demonstrates, many people today simply consider marriage a legal arrangement–a piece of paper–that allows them some benefits (like shared insurance). The word “marriage” has been thus robbed of its meaning and is now being stretched to cover other relationships that have biblically and historically never been considered marital covenants.

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