What Happened to the Middle-Class American Family?

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage … or so the old taunt goes. Increasingly in America, though, the middle step is missing, and not totally for reasons of changing morals.

It's the economy.

More than 40 percent of American children are now born to unmarried parents, down from just five percent in 1960, according to Pew Research Center. Fifty years ago, the vast majority of adults — 72 percent — were married. The same is true for only about half of adults today. The declines in marriage are especially pronounced in families with lower earnings. Tying the knot is increasingly a marker of class status in America.

Michael Bridges and Laura McCann with their daughter.
John Brecher | NBC News
Michael Bridges and Laura McCann with their daughter.

When Michael Bridges and Laura McCann learned that McCann was pregnant four years ago, their parents expected that the young couple would get married.

"It was my first concern," said Michael Bridges Sr. "I felt the marriage is a moral thing, so they don't go falling apart. I feel like it's more stable."

"We both grew up in traditional families," said McCann, 28, a social worker in Boone, North Carolina. "My father was a truck driver, the breadwinner, and my mother stayed home and raised us. Lots of people thought we'd be the same way."

But that is not the route followed by the young couple, who met in high school and whose baby was born months after McCann graduated from Appalachian State University with a social work degree.


"We didn't want to get married just because we had a kid," said Bridges, 29, who was working for a building company when Olivia was born. "I guess it's just about the times I grew up in. A lot of the people I know are like us: kids but not married."

Two years later, Bridges and McCann separated. "We weren't going to stay together just because we were together, if it wasn't the right thing," McCann said.

Changing values, norms ... and the economy

The growing ubiquity of families like the one that Bridges and McCann have crafted is tied in part to changing values and norms. But these shifts are intimately connected to the reordering of economic institutions that once underpinned middle and working-class family life, scholars say. As industrial sector and professional jobs that a half a century ago provided men with enough income to support a family disappear, so has the attachment to marriage as a prerequisite for an economically stable life.

"One of the most important determinants of marriage historically has had to do with men's earnings," said Ronald Mincy of Columbia University's School of Social Work. "It's now the case that men now have lower real earnings than their fathers, even if they have the same level of education. Men's earnings in particular are important to decision to whether people get marriage. If men are not earning high wages, there's less draw to get married."

Research has shown that there's a smaller marriage gap in U.S. cities with better labor markets for people with less education. And scholars are finding that there's a growing marriage gap between high and low income Americans. This, researchers say, is particularly acute when men earn less.

And among men between 20 and 49, over half — 56 percent — of those with higher paying professional and managerial jobs were married in 2013, according to analysis of Census data by Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist. Less than a third — 31 percent — of lower-paid men working in the service sector were married.

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These economic shifts, scholars say, have been part of the reason that cultural ideas and commitments to married families are changing.

"The economy has not been supportive of marriage," said Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families and the author of the book "Generation Unbound." "As marriage has disappeared and other lifestyles — single and unmarried parenthood — have become more prevalent, these family structures have gained a staying power that's not easily reversed simply by changing the economic environment."

Bridges grew up in a family that was distinctly of the last generation. His mother and father, neither of whom graduated from college, both worked for decades at Bell Telephone in Texas, making solid incomes that bought a house in the suburbs, and later a home in the mountains outside of the rural North Carolina town of Sparta where Bridges went to high school.

"We didn't need for anything," said Bridges, who lives in the house on the mountain that his parents bought when they moved from Texas to North Carolina about 15 years ago. "I can't say we were wealthy, but it was a pretty regular family."

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Michael Bridges Sr., 57, acknowledges that things have changed for his son's generation. "In the past, when I was his age, you could get on with a company and you could be there till you're old and gray. But with downsizing and companies being bought up, it's harder."

"Still," the elder Bridges said, "the institution of marriage is important."

Children with committed parents

Children with two committed parents, research shows, tend to do better than those with single parents. But what's not clear from much of the research is whether that's because having two parents at home is better for children, or if those who do not get married are generally more likely to be poor, and otherwise lack access to better opportunities for the youngest generation.

What is clear is that little about the American economy is like it was a generation or two ago. As middle-income jobs are disappearing, the biggest wage losses have been in manufacturing and construction sectors that are traditionally held by men. While the hollowing of the middle class has hit men and women alike — much of recent job growth has been concentrated in the low-wage service and retail sectors — there's been a slower but still significant expansion of high skilled, middle-income service jobs like social work or nursing. Women, who for the first time in history are more likely to have college degrees, are better positioned to take advantage of these jobs.

McCann's path has followed the tracks of the emerging economy. She says that when she was pregnant and gave birth to Olivia, the pressure was thick to choose a traditional route.

"For the older generation, it was marriage first, baby second. When we moved to Sparta the stigma there," McCann said. "I was pregnant and waiting tables and I had people saying 'why don't you have a ring on your finger and why are you not married?'"

Working as a waitress, McCann says she might have been able to make it on her own. Bridges was working at the building company and keeping them afloat.

But McCann finished college, and soon found a job as a social worker, moving up the ladder to become the director of social services at a skilled nursing facility in Boone, North Carolina.

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"There's a lot of powerful woman now who have been able to mobilize in a way that when my mother was my age she could not," McCann said. "She could probably not have made it on her own. The economy plays a huge part in that."

Bridges, for his part, hasn't finished college. He's re-enrolled in community college now, studying marketing. "I want to do something that I enjoy," he said. "Now that Laura has her own income and a job, we don't worry about money so much. Nothing has really changed except for the living situation."

"Looking at it now, I truthfully done everything backwards," he said. "If I were my parents' age, I'd have married, then had kids, and had the same job for my whole career. But that kind of work just isn't around."