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Class Structure and Trends in American Marriage

culture, family, human capital, MARRI, marriage No comments
MARRI Interns
Charles Murray has written a new book detailing some of the most unnerving yet under-reported demographic trends shaping Americatoday.  Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 is his analysis of the contemporary American class structure which he argues is marked by a novel divergence of certain behaviors, including marital structure and religious activity.  The emphasis of his book is that these trends are novel because the highest and lowest classes in America“diverge on core behaviors and values” and consequently can “barely recognize their underlying American kinship.”

Murray’s longitudinal analysis of American culture from 1960-2010 identifies the cementation of the new lower classes around fundamental shifts in behavior in the areas of industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity.  If it is true “the feasibility of the American project has historically been based on industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity” and that these “founding virtues,” to use Murray’s phrase, have fallen into disfavor, these trends bear ill for the health of the society and the probability of success of the American project.

While I would not be the first to observe that Murray’s usage of data is idiosyncratic, it does highlight well-documented trends in the decline of marriage and simultaneous rise of divorce while adding the interesting gloss that these trends are now a signally defining rift between the lower class and the upper class.  Since, as our research shows and as Murrayrightly notes, “family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married,” the generational effect is compounded, further widening the rift between these classes.

Of foremost importance is the issue of marriage: “I have chosen to present class divergence in marriage first because it is so elemental.  Over the last half century, marriage has become the fault line dividing American classes.”  While the notion that articulating afresh and reinvigorating monogamous, heterosexual, lifelong marriage—that form of marriage that study after study demonstrates is most stable and most beneficial to the child—and committed religious affiliation and practice would be a panacea for the multifarious ills which afflict modern society is unacceptably reductionist, it is likewise facile to overlook the critical position occupied by both marriage and religion in exercising a causal link to the health and success of society as a whole.  While honesty itself is a relatively nebulous, intangible, unquantifiable measure in the social sciences, industriousness is explicitly quantifiable.  The wealth of research that is often cited on this blog demonstrates the correlation between industriousness and marriage; economic productivity increases as marriage increases, and men who never marry (or who have unstable relational lives) do not experience the same economic benefits as married persons enjoy.  Thus, we find that three out of Murray’s four barometers (the fourth, honesty, being difficult to quantify.  Murray himself equates it with adherence to the law) of societal health are inextricably bound together.

The analysis provided by Coming Apart adds another tome to the ever-expanding library of studies documenting the fact that marriage and religion are critical to the flourishing of society in general and of Americain particular.  The Marriage and Religion Research Institute is at the forefront of documenting these longitudinal shifts in American society through our Family Trends annual update that summarizes the findings of a number of peer-reviewed, academic journals. For those interested in longitudinal studies of American society, reading Murray’s analysis alongside MARRI’s trendline data will undoubtedly elucidate some of the unexpected yet undeniably significant demographic trends shaping modern America

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