Knot Yet What? How to Build Stronger Families

by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn


When we read about what is happening to the twenty-somethings at the heart of Knot Yet our first thoughts are of two couples we know who illustrate the patterns we have found in  our research on contemporary families. The first, we’ll call Peter and Rose. They are 28 and engaged. Although they live together, they won’t marry until they have saved up for the wedding of their dreams.  And whenever the wedding bells sound, they can’t image having a child any time soon. Their jobs are demanding, hours are inflexible, and cutting back would mean taking themselves off the career ladder they have worked hard to mount. Children will have to wait.

The other couple we’ll call May and Mario. May recently came to us in tears. May is pregnant with Mario’s child, and she has no plans to marry him. But that’s not why she was crying. Her car, which she depends on to get to the two jobs she works to stay afloat, had broken down and she needed legal advice. May told us that the pregnancy was an accident. She doesn’t have health insurance and wasn’t using contraception, but she wouldn’t consider an abortion. Marrying Mario, however, was out of the question. She explained, “I can take of myself. I always have. I can care of myself and the baby. I can’t take care of myself, the kid and him.”

Marriage, like abortion, is a centerpiece of the culture wars. It has also increasingly become a symbol of the growing class divide in American life. In Knot Yet, the National Marriage Project (NMP) has dramatically documented the “Great Crossover” in which the average age of marriage is now almost a year later than the average age of first birth. As we’ve come to expect from the NMP, the description of contemporary families is profoundly insightful, and the data present a compelling picture of the class divide in marriage and parenthood.

The critical question is cause and effect. We agree with the NMP that the emergence of marriage as a marker of class increases the gulf between those reaping the benefits of a more unequal economy and those left behind. We share the concern that the result skews the resources available for children, reducing the overall human capital investment in the next generation.

Where we disagree is on what to do. Our solution?  Create jobs, reduce inequality, and rebuild communities, and we believe the family will take care of itself.

Let’s consider the differences between Peter and Rose and May and Mario in terms of “marriage markets” (the pool of eligible suitors). The secret to the greater marital stability of the elite is that greater inequality has segmented marriage markets. As Christine Schwartz and Robert Mare document in the journal “Demography,” college graduate men have become much more likely to marry college graduate women and to do so at later ages, when career prospects are more apparent. In an economy in which the big winners are the top men, and in which elite male income gains have outpaced female gains, successful men select from a relatively smaller group of top women – the only group in society whose marriage rates have risen.

According to the Hamilton Project, women in the top 5% of the income distribution have seen their marriage rates rise by more than 10%, while holding steady for the top 10%, and declining for every other group. In addition, as Eric Gould and Daniele Paserman point out, the greater the male income inequality in a city, the fewer the women who are married by age 30. The men who expect their fortunes to improve wait until they get there to commit, and then choose partners who complement that success.

For the rest of the social order, it’s slim pickings. Between 1980 and 2000, wages rose for the better educated while stagnating for blue-collar men. Charles Murray in Coming Apart estimates that in white, working-class communities roughly 12% of the men are not in the labor force, 10% or more are unemployed and looking for work, and another 20% are underemployed, equaling 42% of the total. The figures are worse in comparable African-American communities.

Moreover, employment security has declined for most workers, and more so for working-class men than for the better educated. Mario worked in a factory for a while, but after he was laid off, he drifted through a series of odd jobs. A half century ago, blue-collar jobs did not just pay more,  they offered security, stability, and identity. Mario has none of these things. And when he’s not working, he’s drinking and not much fun to be around.

Those concerned about marriage emphasize that it’s not Mario’s earnings but his behavior that scares off May, but they overlook the links between employment and behavior.  Harvard sociologist Bill Wilson explains that unemployed men are not marriageable and, indeed, recent studies show that while laid-off women do more around the house, laid-off men contribute less, and are right behind alcoholics as the men most likely to abuse their partners.

Sociologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord in their book, “Too Many Women: The Sex Ratio Question” add that anything that takes a significant number of men out of a relationship market affects the entire group. When women outnumber men, the men become less likely to commit and more likely to cheat even if they do commit. The women become jaded about the men, and invest more in their own earning capacity. Relationship stability suffers.

The class-based divergence in family formation follows the gender ratio script. Greater inequality segments marriage markets, and increases the number of men at the top and the bottom of the social order. At the top, deferred family formation increases not only the odds of career success, but of making it into a higher status relationship market – one with a higher ratio of men to women and greater cultural emphasis on the importance of mate choice and two-parent investment in children.

At the same time, greater inequality writes off a higher percentage of men because of chronic unemployment, imprisonment, and violence, all of which tend to be greater in more unequal societies. The women in these communities increasingly give up on the men who remain, reinforcing gender distrust and cultural acceptance of shorter term, more contingent relationships.

Economics and culture offer complementary explanations of the same phenomena, and greater equality is more likely to spur cultural change than sermons alone. May, after all, slept with Mario because she lacks better choices, but she won’t seriously consider a longer-term commitment unless her relationship prospects improve. Mario knows he can always find another woman, but he – and May and their child — have no serious hope of a better life.


June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. She is author of From Partners to Parents: The Second Revolution in Family Law and, with Naomi Cahn, Red Families v. Blue Families.

Naomi Cahn is a law professor at George Washington University Law School. She and June Carbone are the authors of Red Families v. Blue Families and the forthcoming, Family Classes:  What is Really Happening to the American Family (Oxford University Press).