While lower, middle and upperclass can be defined in various ways, a State of the States report, defined lower class as those who did not complete high school; middle class (or moderately-educated, as referred to in the report) as those who graduated high school but did not go on to complete college; and upper class individuals as those who graduated from college.

The middle class has seen a 29 percent rise in women cohabiting between 1988 and the late 2000s. Historically, the lower class has always had a higher percentage of women who cohabited, but with the recent percentage increases, the middle class is almost equal to the lower class.

Out-of-wedlock childbearing more than doubled for the middle class between 1982 and the late 2000s; completely outpacing the lower class with a more than 30-point jump. In contract, those considered highly educated, or college graduates, only saw a very small increase of out-of-wedlock births.

Both lower and upper class couples had a decrease in divorce rates from the 1970s to 1990s (with the drop in divorces for lower class individuals, unfortunately, primarily attributable to much lower marriage rates).

The increase in cohabitation, divorce, and out-of-wedlock childbearing shows the middle class is now morphing into something that looks much more like the lower class. These changes appear to, at least in part, be driving a perception that the traditional “American Dream” is more and more out of reach for the average Americans. As the report points out, however, the American Dream is becoming more elusive because some of the habits that help assure financial success – like having babies after getting married – are becoming much less common.

While many factors have contributed to the middle class falling further behind the upper class, (including unemployment, lower wages, fewer social connections and less social capital) the strongest factor seems to be the failure to follow the ‘success sequence.’

As explained by Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Marquardt, the success sequence has long been the routine of those considered the upper class.  They “embrace[d] the bourgeois values and virtues—for instance, delayed gratification, a focus on education, and temperance…[and] adhere devoutly to a “success sequence” norm that puts education, work, marriage, and childbearing in sequence, one after another.” Until quite recently, the middle class has embraced the important aspects of the success sequence in its behavior, which has allowed it to enjoy financial stability. By abandoning marriage, the middle class is abandoning the institution that allowed it to thrive. In many ways – and especially financially – it is now paying a price.

In order for the middle class to reappear from its disappearing act, marriage and the key supports that make successful family life more likely – a quality education and stable employment – must be addressed. This is the essence of our work and the decline of the middle class in America is one of the reasons we believe this work is more urgent than ever.


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