The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Opinion

December 11, 2013

How to fight inequality and enhance happiness

President Barack Obama spoke about income inequality in a recent address but failed to mention one of the most significant contributors to rising inequality in America: the marriage gap.

Jobs are changing, international competition has driven down wages, top executives are pulling down enormous salaries, but it is cultural patterns — specifically personal decisions about cohabitation and marriage — that are most responsible for deepening the divide between haves and have-nots in America. The contrast between the highly educated and the rest of the nation has become so pronounced that some are now calling marriage a "luxury good."

If it becomes that — if the collapse of marriage as a norm continues among the poor and the broad middle class — much more than income inequality will result. We will institutionalize a productivity deficit, a healthy community deficit, a schooling deficit and a happiness deficit.

Marriage is decaying very fast. As recently as the 1980s, only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers (those with a high school diploma and perhaps some college) were born outside of marriage, according to research from the National Marriage Project. Today, it is 44 percent. Even more disturbing are the recent data showing that 53 percent of babies born to women under age 30 are nonmarital. Children of moderately educated parents are beginning to experience family dissolution, instability and pathology at rates more closely resembling the poor than the upper-middle class.

If you graduate from college, you are likely to choose a family life similar, if not quite identical, to the 1950s ideal. If you are a high school dropout, you are unlikely to marry at all. If you have a high school diploma or some college, your family life in many cases is going to be chaotic, featuring cohabitation, short marriages and high rates of instability. W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project reports that "cohabiting couples have a much higher breakup rate than do married couples, a lower level of household income, and a higher level of child abuse and domestic violence."

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