Can We Have a Strong Middle Class Without Strong Marriages?

details of a wedding
details of a wedding

"Fewer. Poorer. Gloomier."

These are the three words that the Pew Research Center uses to describe the outlook of the 85 percent of Americans who describe themselves as middle class after a recent survey in July. They report that "since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some -- but by no means all -- of its characteristic faith in the future..."

Naturally during this election season both candidates are courting the middle class and since I consider myself middle class I have tried to listen intently to their debates. I hear talk of jobs, tax cuts, tax deductions, college loans, but one word I never hear: MARRIAGE.

Are marriage and the middle class somehow connected? A recent essay by my colleague at the Institute for American Values, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, brought this question to my attention as she proposes that the health of the middle class ties directly to the health of our marriages, and, sadly, our marriages are not that healthy. Citing several recent reports as well as two poignant real-life portraits reported last summer by New York Times reporter Jason DeParle, Whitehead shows how the retreat from marriage is now showing up among people who make up the largest share of the middle class -- close to sixty percent of the adult population, age 25-60. They are high school graduates who may have gone on to serve in the military or to attend community college but who do not hold a four-year college degree. As recently as 1970, these "middle" Americans were as likely to wed as more highly educated Americans. But today, many are failing to stay married or to form marriages in the first place.

Why would marriage be so important to getting into or staying in the middle class? To find out I emailed Whitehead for further insight about the strengths of marriage. She creates a list that highlights why marriage is not only a public expression of romantic love and commitment between two people but an institution that makes all of society stronger as well as the individuals in it:

"Marriage lets two live almost as cheaply as one -- or at least achieve economies of scale. Marriage also provides a second potential earner in the household -- an important safety net in these recessionary times. (Indeed, the reason that many non-college middle class families have been able to stay afloat in a period of stagnating wages is that women now are likely to work and married couples have two earners in theory and often in practice.) Finally, marriage provides for more parental cooperation, time investments, and shared responsibility for the kids."

As I read through her list, I checked off every item that applies to me and I could see clearly how, to use her words, marriage is "a safety net and trampoline" not only for me and my husband but also for our children as well as our community. These strengths of marriage may not be what we think about in the romance of dating and getting married, but they are the very strengths that may help keep us married over the long haul and can be an inspiration for why working on the quality of our married relationship over the life span is worth the time and effort.

Our time has seen many great marriage debates concerning poverty, race, divorce, and most recently same-sex marriage, and while Whitehead concedes that those discussions remain relevant and important, she challenges us to think about a new marriage debate.

"We must bring marriage into the discussion of how to strengthen the middle class. The new question before us is simple but fundamental. Can we realistically hope to rebuild the middle class while accepting the fracturing of marriage, the very institution on which our middle class most clearly depends? Can we Americans realistically hope for a middle class majority if we no longer hope and strive for a married majority?"

Personally and professionally, her final questions stay with me. Are we truly striving for a married majority? And if not, what societal impact will that have on the middle class now and on generations to come?

To read the full essay, "What's Missing from Our Middle Class Debate?" from Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, read here. To read more from Amy Ziettlow visit