Men's Economic Status and Marital Transitions of Fragile Families

By Sassler, Sharon; Roy, Soma et al. | Demographic Research, January-June 2014 | Go to article overview

Men's Economic Status and Marital Transitions of Fragile Families


Sassler, Sharon, Roy, Soma, Stasny, Elizabeth, Demographic Research


1. Introduction

The "retreat from marriage" has been observed in all developed countries, but in recent years commentators have noted an interesting social class change in marriage patterns. The marriage gap between the most advantaged (demonstrated by educational attainment and earnings) and those with fewer economic resources has reversed, so that the well-offare now more likely to be wed (Bracher and Santow 1998 [Sweden]; Goldstein and Kenney 2001 [United States]; Heard 2011 [Australia and New Zealand]; Kravdal [Norway] 1999; McLanahan 2004 [United States]). Explanations for declines in the proportion of adults who are married often reference men's deteriorating economic positions (Oppenheimer 2003), or note the increase in economically advantaged women's likelihood of being married (Goldstein and Kenney 2001; Heard 2011). Though weakening in importance, men's ability to fill the provider role remains a consistent requirement for marriage across the class spectrum (Gibson-Davis, Edin, and McLanahan 2005; Sassler and Goldscheider 2004; Smock, Manning, and Porter 2005), as well as across nations (Heard 2011; Kravdal 1999; Reneflot 2006; Wiik, Bernhardt, and Noack 2010).

While various measures of a "good living" are important prerequisites for marriage, fiscal concerns appear to be less salient for transitions to parenthood or for informal unions (Gibson-Davis 2009). At the dawn of the 21st century, a third of all births in the United States, and forty percent or more of births in Denmark, France, Sweden, and the U.K. occurred outside of marital unions (Martin and Kats 2003). The growing prevalence of non-marital childbearing has captured center stage in contemporary public policy debates in the U.S., taken to herald the rejection of the institution of marriage (Nock 2006; Murray 2012; for a European perspective, see Morgan 2000). It is also a concern because in liberal regimes where the role of the state in redistributing wealth is limited (Esping-Andersen 1990), non-marital parenting is associated with negative consequences for children (Brown 2010). Unmarried parents' unions are far less stable than marriages (McLanahan 2011; Perelli-Harris et al. 2012), and fathers' likelihood of remaining involved with children when unions disrupt is considerably weaker when parents were unmarried at the birth (McLanahan 2011). In the United States, resources have been devoted to programs aimed at strengthening ties between men and their children, links that are often mediated by fathers' relationships with their child's mother (Carlson 2006; Carlson, McLanahan, and Brooks-Gunn 2008; Waller and Swisher 2006). A primary goal of these initiatives is to encourage unwed parents to marry, under the assumption that doing so will produce more positive child outcomes (Nock 2005).

Although low-income single mothers often express reservations about marriage (Edin 2000), the majority desires to wed (Lichter, Batson, and Brown 2004). A man's inability to provide economically, however, represents a considerable barrier to marriage; many single mothers are reluctant to wed a man who cannot find and hold stable, legal work (Edin 2000). The least-advantaged place particular emphasis on demonstrating various markers of financial stability, such as establishing an autonomous household, holding a steady job, or having the money to throw a "real" wedding, prior to getting married (Edin and Kefalas 2005; Sassler and Miller 2011; Smock et al. 2005). The difficulty of reaching such milestones is often proffered as one reason parents remain unmarried (Gibson-Davis et al. 2005; Smock et al. 2005).

A growing body of research has begun to document factors shaping marital intentions (Kravdal 1999; Renoflot 2006; Wiik et al. 2010), as well as whether or not intentions to marry are associated with transitions into marriage (Lichter et al. 2004; Sassler and McNally 2003; Waller and McLanahan 2005). Although many studies highlight the importance of men's economic attainment as important predictors of marital intentions, what level of economic attainment, on average, is adequate to tip the scale in favor of marriage remains an open question. …

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