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The Death of American Unions Is Killing American Marriage

Andrew Burton / Getty Images

For all the mawkish, maudlin conservative hand-wringing about the state of marriage among the working class—recall Republican Mitt Romneyamong others, recently claiming marriage as the solution to poverty—a post-mortem on marriage among the less materially fortunate turns up fascinating results. Poverty itself, it seems, is the chief agent of marital decline among the poor. This is especially true of falling wages among working class men, who have borne the brunt of the right-wing war on labor unions.

The trend was detectable even back in 2012, when Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell pointed it out in the New York Times.

Forty years ago, about nine of 10 American men between the ages of 30 and 50 were married, and the most highly paid men were just slightly more likely to wed than those paid least. Since then, earnings for men in the top tenth of the income distribution have risen and their marriage rates have fallen slightly, from 95 percent in 1970 to 83 percent today. […] [M]en in the bottom quartile of earnings have had a wage cut of 60 percent, and a contemporaneous drop in marriage rates to about 50 percent, from 86 percent.

In a 2014 Atlantic essay, W. Bradford Wilcox of the pro-marriage think tank National Marriage Project also pointed to men’s dropping wages as the culprit behind declining marriage rates. “Working-class and poor women are less likely to see the men in their lives as marriageable or worth sticking with,” Wilcox reported. “Indeed, the research tells us that men’s income remains a strong predictor of marrying and steering clear of divorce court.”

In questioning marriage to men with precarious or despairingly poor economic futures, working class women are not displaying any kind of newfangled indifference to marriage, but rather old-fashioned prudence. Indeed, a study published by UCLA sociologists in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that poor people’s attitudes toward marriage and divorce are as—and often more—traditional than those of their upper-class peers. For a poor woman with low income, marrying a man with even worse financial prospects than herself is a liability to her and to any children she may have; moreover, the stress of a second source of financial insecurity is venomous to family formation.

But how do we explain the swiftly declining prospects of working class men? The Great Recession certainly appears to have disproportionately affected low-income male workers, but why? While the economic disparity can be partially explained by differences in industry participation between men and women in low paying work, there is yet another culprit, this one engineered by conservative politics: the decline of labor unions. 

In a recent essayNew York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof issued a thoughtful about-face on the subject of labor unions. While admitting that some of the well-publicized excesses of labor organizing—like highly paid stagehands and the stubborn defense of bad employees—strike him as questionable, Kristof nonetheless provides disturbing evidence that linked the decline of labor unions to the decline of working class men's prospects.

Kristof cites a study conducted by professors at Harvard and the University of Washington that concludes “the decline of the U.S. labor movement has added as much to men’s wage inequality as has the relative increase in pay for college graduates.” The authors continue:

[U]nions helped shape the allocation of wages not just for their members, but across the labor market. The decline of U.S. labor and the associated increase in wage inequality signaled the deterioration of the labor market as a political institution. Workers became less connected to each other in their organizational lives and less connected in their economic fortunes.

In other words, the decline of labor unions not only reduced workers’ control of their economic destinies by decoupling them from the fates of their fellow workers, but also allowed for rapid wage decreases that put lower-income laborers at a financial distance from more privileged employees within highly unionized industries and outside them. For working class men who belong to unions and those who don’t, the study concludes, the decline of labor unions has nonetheless changed the labor landscape—creating an underclass of precariously employed, low-wage workers, many of them men.

And, pushed by Republicans, anti-labor legislation is still on the march. So-called ‘right-to-work laws’—which drain union finances by allowing employees covered by union contracts to avoid paying dues while still requiring unions to absorb the costs of representing them—have recently been proposed and passed in several states. Michigan and Indiana are among the latest to pass such legislation, with Missouri now attempting to follow suit. Only states currently have the ability to pass right-to-work legislation. But a handful of Kentucky counties, backed by Republican support, have recently tried to pass their own right-to-work legislation—most likely in an effort to win cities and counties across the country the privilege to do so in court. If these conservative enclaves succeed, then unions in labor-friendly states could nonetheless find themselves endangered by right-wing municipal governments.

Anti-labor states don’t have much to show for themselves in terms of worker well-being, either. A 2012 study published in the National Education Association’s Higher Education Journal found that states with pro-labor legal codes “are significantly healthier, are more productive, have less poverty, and [have] citizens who enjoy longer life spans,” the report reads. “In four of the seven measures (GDP per capita, poverty, insurance and life expectancy rates) so-called “right-to-work” states come out significantly (and statistically) worse.”

Taken together with the other studies that consider the specific struggles of poor men, it appears the anti-labor legislation aggressively promoted by conservatives has been a decisive factor in the decline of working class men’s economic futures—which, in turn, has imperiled marriage among working class Americans. With more than a third of never-married Americans citing financial insecurity as their reason for putting off vows, continued assault on labor and its resulting damage to workers will only further damage the institution.

As the 2016 Presidential election draws near and the inevitable debate over American family values invariably resurfaces, keep in mind that it no longer seems possible to recreate the strong lower and middle class families of the past without recreating the strong labor unions that sustained them. Free market ideology, as always, is the stuff of isolated individuals and their personal interests: It is not the kind of mindset that contributes to unions of any kind, labor or marital.