Is inequality turning marriage into a luxury good?
Finding true love, philosophers have always understood, can get complicated in deeply unequal places. Grand fortunes tend to give Cupid a hard time not just on Valentine’s Day, but all the time.
“If you gain fame, power, or wealth, you won’t have any trouble finding lovers,” as the late social critic Philip Slater noted years ago. “But they will be people who love fame, power, or wealth.”
Philosophers no longer have the love-and-inequality connection cornered. All sorts of social scientists are now working that intersection where wealth and romance meet — and they’re uncovering an assortment of troubling trends.
Researchers are finding, for instance, that Cupid’s arrows fall less randomly than they did back in the middle of the 20th century. Americans today have become distinctly less likely to marry someone outside of their income bracket.
Social scientists have a label for this phenomenon. They call it “assortative mating.” New research from economist Jeremy Greenwood and his colleagues documents how this dynamic is contributing significantly to our growing inequality.
“The rich marry rich and get richer,” notes Andrea Garcia-Vargas, one commentator on the research. “The poor marry poor and get poorer.”
But the cause and effect goes both ways. Assortative mating widens the income gaps that divide us. Wider income gaps nurture assortative mating.
Back in the 1960s, a much more equal time in America, men with high school diplomas could count on good union-wage jobs. They made nearly as much as — and often even more than — men with college degrees.
In that more equal nation, most Americans lived within economic reach of most other Americans and interacted socially with a wide cross-section of the nation’s population.
Today, with Americans much more divided by income, social interactions across income levels have become considerably rarer. People increasingly marry within their own income bracket — if they marry at all.
And that brings us to another mating consequence of growing inequality: the ongoing slide in the share of American adults married.
In 1960, 72 percent of Americans over 18 lived the married life. The 2010 share: just 51 percent. Among younger Americans, the data point to an even steeper tumble. Three-fifths of 18- to 29-year-olds had spouses in 1960. Only one-fifth do today.
How to explain this trend? One key factor is the economic squeeze on working Americans. A half-century ago, a single wage earner could support a family. No longer. Two earners have become a necessity for maintaining anything close to a comfortable middle-class status.
But keeping two people together has never been harder. In our unequal America, jobs have become less secure and workplaces more stressful. At every turn, the strains on married life multiply.
Affluent couples can more easily overcome this strain, note sociologists Sarah Corse and Jennifer Silva. These couples can afford the investments necessary to keep their marriages healthy. They can spend on everything from therapists to “date nights” and get-away-from-it-all vacations. Couples working low-paid jobs find such therapy, formal and informal, simply unaffordable.
America’s top-heavy distribution of income and wealth, Corse and Silva go on to detail, has left many economically insecure Americans “unable to imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others.”
Amid this high-stress reality, adds Atlantic commentator Nancy Cook, marriage “is fast becoming a luxury good.” People who can’t afford the investments that help keep marriages together split and sink from the middle class. The nation becomes a more unequal — and lonelier — place.
For that loneliness, we pay a heavy price.
“Air pollution increases your chances of dying early by 5 percent, obesity by 20 percent,” observes Aditya Chakrabortty. “Excessive loneliness pushes up your odds of an early death by 45 percent.”
Those figures come from neuroscientist John Cacioppo, an expert on social seclusion. We have, he writes, created “a culture of social isolates, atomized by social and economic upheaval and separated by vast inequalities.”
If we want to find love, in sum, we need to go looking in more equal places.
OtherWords columnist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, edits the inequality weekly Too Much. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class. OtherWords.org.