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Naomi Cahn

Marriage — the new marker of social class?

3:36 PM  Feb 13th, 2012
by Shannon Shelton Miller

In 1970, there wasn’t much difference in the likelihood of marriage for men and women based on their level of education. By 2011, although marriage rates had dropped nationwide, they declined the least among the college-educated.

Those were among the statistics Naomi R. Cahn, a law professor at George Washington University, shared as she discussed the effect of socioeconomic class on marriage and family formation during a Feb. 9 talk sponsored by the School of Law and the women’s and gender studies program.

Her lecture “Family Classes: What Really Happened to the American Family?” examined how middle class women are approaching marriage and family formation differently from their counterparts in the working class, as increased income and career opportunities resulting from higher education has made women more selective. Although college-educated women marry later, they’re less likely to divorce.

They’re also likely to marry a man of a similar socioeconomic and educational background.

“Women are becoming choosier about whom they’re willing to marry,” she said.

That’s a strategy, however, that doesn’t translate well to those in the working class, Cahn said. There, higher percentages of men are written off as unmarriageable because of factors such as unemployment, substance abuse, mental illness and imprisonment, leading to decreased marriage rates and higher nonmarital birth rates.

It’s problematic, Cahn said, when marriage and its benefits become limited to the upper classes. She said addressing economic inequality should be among the solutions explored for working class men and women.

“Marriage should not be a marker of class,” Cahn said.

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