Since the middle of the 1990s, American households have been experiencing the shaking changes in the family patterns of divorce, child rearing, cohabitation, and marriage. Economic crises threaten stability and integrity of marriage institution, because working families do not have time to devote to either their children, or to their personal relationships. Unless the state is able to decrease the impact of economic shakes on the social structure of the American society, the U.S. will not change American views on contemporary family arrangement.
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The social structure of the American family is undergoing major changes. Since the middle of the 1990s, American households have been experiencing the shaking changes in the family patterns of divorce, child rearing, cohabitation, and marriage. The discussed situation reveals the close interrelation between marriage, family behaviors, and economic trends; as families are entering the second decade of the 20th century, the notion of marriage gradually wanes under the pressure of the growing economic inequality.
In his article, Harms (1999) reveals the hidden aspects of the American marriage, and the way marriage behaviors are linked to economic situation in the country. Statistical research suggests that “in 1972, 73 percent of children lived with their original two parents, who were married. By 1988, 51.7 percent lived in such households. The number of children living with single parents went from 4.7 percent in 1972 to 18.2 percent in 1998” (Harms, 1999). The natural question is how these data relate to the social structure of marriage in the United States? The natural answer is that growing economic inequality and income volatility of the American households have substantially changed the structure of the U.S. labor force and societal attitudes towards working women. Currently, U.S. women tend to look for additional income outside the home; as a result, working mothers experience different expectations of their children. Many couples do not have children at all. With the need to promote personal well-being, marriage has ceased to be a ritual or a necessity. Children are no longer the purpose of marriage; marriage is no longer the purpose of one’s life. Americans traditionally viewed marriage as the “institution of romantic love and companionship” (Harms, 1999), but economic difficulties leave no space for romance. Economic crises threaten stability and integrity of marriage institution, because working families do not have time to devote to either their children, or to their personal relationships.
Official statistics refutes ideas about the stability of the U.S. economy, and the stability of the American institution of marriage.
Median household income (based on Current Population Survey data), after gaining 11 percent between 1983 and 1989, grew by only 2.3 percent from 1989 to 2001 and then nosedived by almost 7 percent between 2001 and 2004, for a net change of only 6 percent from 1983 to 2004. (Spilerman, 2000)
The early 2000s have been marked with the sharp decrease of the median household income in the U.S.; those economic trends were aggravated by the general volatility of household incomes. Female work did not contribute much into the rise of median household income; although female earnings have been more stable since the beginning of the 1990s, they could not resolve financial and economic issues that households have been facing. Generally, the increased female participation in labor has undermined the stability of marriage institutions in the U.S.: women have turned into second family earners, working to protect family income, and losing their traditional “housekeeping” roles. When the need to earn good income prevails, marriage ceases to be the central element of the household’s wellbeing. Children are raised by unmarried parents; very often, families with children do not include both original parents; households distance themselves from the traditional family-structure model (Haider, 2001). Simultaneously, not all families have been equally impacted by the growing economic tension.
Haider (2001) writes that “rates of marriage also are changing according to class; middle-class people are more likely to marry and remarry than working class people”. Thus, marriage behaviors are integrally linked to financial stability and income of a particular family. Middle-class and working-class families are much more vulnerable to economic shakes, than those from the upper class. The recent research has shown that the average income of middle-class families has grown 21% between 1980 and 2005; during the same time period, the average income of working-class families has grown only 14%, while that of the upper class families has experienced dramatic increase of 230% (Spilerman, 2000). The slight increase of working- and middle-class families’ income is the result of increased work hours, and the constantly growing amount of female work. “Indeed, most of the income gains of the middle class are because of these increased work hours, rather than rising earnings” (Haider, 2001). These financial hardships are supplemented with psychological difficulties that are expressed through persistent anxiety and discontent. In such difficult social conditions, marriage loses its relevance and gives place to the more important institution of wealth. Surprisingly or not, but those with lower incomes appear to be more vulnerable to economic changes; as a result, economic crisis does not equally impact all families. Marriage frequency directly depends on the level of family and individual income (Harms, 1999); that is why current economic situation is the critical element that determines stability and progress of marriage institution in the U.S.
The U.S. is experiencing the growing income inequality: “between 1997 and 2000, income inequality again surged, with the share of the top percentile rising by 3.4 percentage points” (Haider, 2001). The number of official marriages is decreasing, too. Despite the relative economic stability, marriage institution is going through a period of stagnation. Unless the state is able to decrease the impact of economic shakes on the social structure of the American society, the U.S. will not change American views on contemporary family arrangement.
Official statistics suggests that Americans no longer view marriage as the basis for contemporary family arrangement. The growing economic inequality and the constantly increasing income gap change societal attitudes towards marriage; as a result, the marriage as a notion gradually wanes, leaving us in a socially indefinite vacuum.
Haider, S.J. (2001). Earnings instability and earnings inequality of males in the United States.
Journal of Labor Economics, 19 (4): 799-836.
Harms, W. (1999). Marriage wanes as American families enter new century, University of
Chicago research shows. The University of Chicago. Retrieved August 7, 2008 from http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/99/991124.family.shtml
Spilerman, S. (2000). Wealth and stratification processes. American Review of Sociology, 26