|Dr. Gary Lee speaking at
BGSU Thursday evening. (Photo: Shane Hughes/Sentinel-Tribune)
Going by the numbers, the American institution of marriage appears to be declining faster than a sled on
It’s a fact that social pundits deplore, since there is plenty of legitimate research to point to,
showing that “married people are happier, healthier and wealthier than unmarried people,” confirms Dr.
Gary Lee, chairman of the sociology department at Bowling Green State University until his retirement in
But take a look at a single statistical comparison:
In the year 1970, 76.5 of every 1,000 unmarried women made a trip down the aisle. By 2010 the number of
women getting married had plummeted by well over half, to just 31.1 of every 1,000.
“The marriage rate has been going down quite dramatically since 1970, and there is no sign that is
slowing,” Lee said.
Who — or what — is to blame?
It’s a point of sharp disagreement, Lee acknowledged late Thursday, as he offered the 2014 Arts and
Sciences Distinguished Faculty Lecture on “The Limits of Marriage: Why Getting Everyone Married Won’t
Solve All Our Problems.”
There is the camp that agrees with Mona Charen of the Heritage Foundation when she suggests that
“everybody go out right now, if you’re not married, go get married and that will solve all these
problems,” namely the fact that unmarried women are 73 percent less well off than married women.
Lee is not of that camp.
Sociologists are able to parse out exactly who it is — among the overall population — that aren’t
registering for toasters and making honeymoon plans.
Among adult males with annual incomes at or below $15,000, a total of 42.2 percent were married in 2013.
By comparison, 82.3 percent of those with incomes greater than $75,000 were married. The never-wed
percentages were 38.6 percent for the lowest income group and just 8.6 percent for those fortunate
The inescapable conclusion is that “men with good jobs and higher income have a much easier time
attracting spouses,” said Lee, who is working on a book about the causes of the declining marriage rate
in the United States, the culmination of a 10-year period of research.
He argues that Charen and others have things backward.
“Marriage is a symptom, not a cause,” Lee argued, a kind of canary in the coal mine.
In 2012, he noted, Washington Post social conservative columnist Kathleen Parker famously offered a bit
of advice for “what President Obama should say to unmarried men: ‘Men, be men. Marry the mother of your
children. Be a father to the children you sire. Go home and stay there.’”
But Lee points out, “I don’t think if those people just got married they’d suddenly be like the other
Why aren’t poor people getting married?
Some have argued they’re just unaware of the benefits of marriage, including living longer and being
Others have blamed “lack of personal responsibility,” given that more than 40 percent of U.S. children
currently are born to unmarried women.
Lee sees an important clue in the 1950s “Coconut Village Study,” in which the lead researcher lived in a
very poor village in Trinidad where the marriage rate for men in their prime was almost zero. It turns
out a man would move into a hut with a woman, she would perhaps have a child or two with him, “but these
men would move out of the woman’s hut when they lost a job, so another man with a job could move in.”
That way the woman and children would continue to have support.
Lee described statistical changes in U.S. men’s incomes from 1969 to 2009.
Over that 40-year span, the median income for all males dropped 28 percent. For men with only a high
school diploma income plunged 47 percent, and for high-school drop-outs the decrease was 68 percent.
For married men in general, income fell 13 percent from 1969 to 2009, but for unmarried men it fell 32
Those unmarried men “are earning about one-third less than they were in 1969,” said Lee.
Other things have changed since 1969, too.
One is “occupational precarity” — the inability to count on a job or a career lasting for decades as it
The era of Horatio Alger is long gone. “We have lower rates of social mobility in the contemporary United
States than in any other industrialized society in the world” — the ability to move from a lower to a
higher socioeconomic class through our own merits and hard work.
Another recent development, said Lee, is that “men are now choosing wives according to their economic
The Cinderella effect is all but extinct, he added. “Both genders are looking for the same thing.”
The consequence of all this is that the poor of both genders are left unmarried.
Seeking an explanation, Lee looked at what things were happening in U.S. society around 1970. It turns
out automation was really getting going in industry and so was the trend toward globalization, which
decreased the demand for labor.
With the populous Baby Boomers now grown and flooding into the workplace the result was a perfect storm.
All these things happening at the same time “drove the price of labor down.”
That meant a young married couple had a harder time making it on just the man’s income. Not surprisingly,
women began entering the labor force in greater numbers to help prop up the family income.
This even-more-enlarged labor pool forced the price of labor still lower.
Far from having no interest in marriage, Lee argues, the poor are even more interested in becoming
married than are others. They just can’t manage it.