The marriage merry-go-round
From an interview with Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, published in the Baltimore City Paper, where the billboards in question first sprang up.
You have seen them on bus stops and on billboards along the interstate—advertisements boasting a pair of beaming newlyweds, rice showering over their heads, teeth radiant, and eyes agleam with the promise of the future. Above their heads is the takeaway: married people earn more money.
Funded by a private organization called Campaign for Our Children, the advertisement is one of nearly a dozen launched in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in 2005 to sell the idea that marriage deters teen pregnancy. The messages came in a variety of forms. Other ads promised that marriage leads to longer life, better health, happiness, and smarter children. Whatever the variation, the bottom line was the same: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage. In other words, marriage works.
Except when it doesn’t, which is about half the time according to most American marriage statistics. Yet a roughly 50 percent divorce rate is only a piece of the puzzle of marriage and family life in America, according to Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University.
In his recent book, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in American Today (Knopf), Cherlin observes that the United States is the only developed country to put such a premium on marriage. Marriage has become a social marker coveted by individuals in every strata of society—from the affluent to the working class, from the near-poor to the impoverished. It is the most valued structure of family life, influencing when a child comes of age and has children of his or her own.
Yet increasingly marriage and a traditional family structure are the preserve of a privileged few. Divorce rates of the college educated are mostly flat. But for poor whites, a stable marriage is a coin toss, even for the religious, such as Southern Baptists. Put another way, the people who most want a traditional lifestyle—those in what used to be called the working class—are the same people most likely never to see that dream come true.
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