This means that a woman whose pool of marriage candidates does not include someone with a college degree has good reason to be cautious about marrying, even if she gets pregnant. If she forgoes investing in her own education or curtails her own work hours, as women frequently do upon marriage, she may end up worse off economically, as well as emotionally, than if she had remained single. Couples in low-income communities now consistently tell researchers that they will not marry until they have achieved enough economic stability to give them a shot at sustaining a lifelong relationship.
So the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots has been paralleled by a widening gap between the "I do's" and the "I do not's." Unfortunately, not being married further exacerbates social inequality because the majority of marriages now involve two wage earners, multiplying the advantage of those who can form stable, committed partnerships and avoid divorce.
Marriage isn't disappearing. Most unmarried Americans say they want to eventually marry, and the vast majority will do so. But even in the best of times — which these are not — we're unlikely to see people returning to early and lifelong marriage. That bus left the station a long time ago, and it's been going in the opposite direction ever since.
Stephanie Coontz teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."