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The Changing Class Divisions That Tear at Low-Income Families

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Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

A new study of newlyweds found that increases in workloads were associated with increases in marital satisfaction for both men and women. The researchers expected this to change when the newlyweds became parents, and indeed it did -- for men. For women who became parents, however, increases in the amount of time and energy they devoted to work were associated with increases in their marital satisfaction. The authors speculated that, once they become parents, husbands and wives might respond differently to changes in each other's workloads; fathers might spend more time on childcare when their wives face high demands at work.

This is important information for those of us trying to balance work and family. On the other hand, increasing numbers of people in the United States are neither married nor employed. Family structure has become a marker of class, and studies can cloak profound differences among different types of families. Unpacking this research requires reconsideration of the relationship between work, marriage, and class. First, limiting the examination to married mothers skews the study from the outset. The most elite women, as measured by education, have become the most likely to marry, a reversal of historical trends.

Second, the most elite women have become the most likely to work. According to 2007 Census Bureau data, only about 26 percent of mothers with a college degree stay home with their children, while more than 40 percent of mothers lacking high school diplomas are full-time homemakers. College educated women are more successful in combining work and family than other groups in part because they tend to have the resources to pay for child care and other help, and because they are more likely to have flexible positions with more generous family leave policies.

Third, the best educated women have also become more likely to have partners who help with the children. Unsurprisingly, married fathers contribute more to child care than unmarried fathers, but even among the married, fathers who are college graduates contribute more than those without college degrees. Indeed, since the start of the Great Recession, the only group of women whose fertility rates have increased are those with graduate degrees, but only if the men in their lives assist.

For the college educated middle class, therefore, this study gets it right. It confirms the results of Penn State sociologist Paul Amato's in-depth comparison of the changes in family life between 1980 and 2000. Amato shows that over the last 20 years it is well educated, two-career families that have experienced the greatest gains in family stability. For two-career couples, women's workforce participation brings greater income and marital quality, along with greater pressure on men to help with the children.

Amato found, however, that the same did not hold true for working-class wives. The marital quality of couples in financial distress dropped significantly during the same 20 year period. This was in large part because women in less satisfying jobs who preferred to be home with the children have increasingly found that they have to work because their husbands cannot support them. More recent studies confirm that unemployed men, in contrast with both unemployed women and men with stable jobs, are less likely to help with either the children or the house, increasing their partners' unhappiness.

The new study, by focusing on newlyweds, largely misses these effects. There is a new, successful family model that combines marriage, childbearing and workforce participation. It incorporates a more egalitarian division of work and family roles. It produces higher rates of income and marital satisfaction. It also, however, requires investment in men and women's education -- and it is increasingly beyond the reach of large portions of the public.

This study fails to show the class based increases in employment instability -- instability that in the long run discourages marriage and contributes to family instability. The fact that the middle class is successfully combining work and family roles says little about those for whom both work and marriage are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. While the Great Recession has at least temporarily decreased divorce rates, it has also lowered marriage rates. Any focus on newlyweds therefore is likely to include only those who can marry, and that overwhelmingly means the better educated with the best jobs. For the rest of the country, the prospects for marriage and jobs remain bleak -- so news about how to manage the tensions between work and family are not comforting.