The Marriage Divide: How and Why Working-Class Families Are More Fragile Today

Key Points

  • This research brief offers an updated portrait of the class divide in American family life, finding that less than half of poor Americans age 18 to 55 (just 26 percent) and 39 percent of working-class Americans are currently married, compared to more than half (56 percent) of middle- and upper-class Americans.
  • Adolescents in poor and working-class homes are also significantly less likely to live with their biological parents than their peers from middle- and upper-class homes (55 percent versus 77 percent).
  • The class divide would be even larger were it not for the presence of immigrants, who are disproportionately married and members of working-class or poor families.
  • After describing the current features of this divide, we explore the key economic, cultural, policy, and civic forces that help explain why marriage and family life are now more fragile for poor and working-class Americans.

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Introduction 

When it comes to marriage and family life, America is increasingly divided. College-educated and more affluent Americans enjoy relatively strong and stable marriages and the economic and social benefits that flow from such marriages. By contrast, not just poor but also working-class Americans face rising rates of family instability, single parenthood, and lifelong singleness. Their families are increasingly fragile, and poor and working-class Americans pay a serious economic, social, and psychological price for the fragility of their families.1

This Opportunity America–AEI–Brookings research brief on working-class families maps out the current state of working-class marriages and family life. It proceeds in two parts. First, with new data analysis from the American Community Survey, the General Social Survey, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and the National Survey of Family Growth, we summarize key demographic characteristics related to marriage and family life for middle- and upper-class, Americans, working-class…

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