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Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family
Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family
June Carbone
Oxford University Press, 2014
272 pp., $33.95

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Anna Sutherland


Inequality and the American Family

How growing income gaps shape relationships.

In discussions of income inequality, conservatives are fond of pointing out that changes in family structure explain up to 40 percent of the increase in household income inequality since the 1970s. It's not hard to see why: In most marriages, both spouses work, whereas divorced or never-married parents must support children on a single income. Two workers earn much more, on average, than one.

Less obvious is how inequality, in turn, affects family structure—the subject of family law scholars June Carbone and Naomi Cahn's new book Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family. Beyond the fact that financial strain and spells of unemployment, both of which disproportionately affect people toward the bottom of the income ladder, can lead couples to divorce or never marry at all, the growing income gaps between rich and poor shape relationships and family formation in some surprising ways. Although Carbone and Cahn tackle a number of political flashpoints head-on—not just inequality but also abortion, welfare, sex education, and more—and occasionally issue sharp criticism of those on the other side of those issues, they are eager to find areas of common ground, and their book should appeal to anyone concerned about the state of the American family. Here, as briefly as possible, is the story they tell.

In the mid-20th century, most people married someone from their hometown, or someone they dated in high school; a husband and wife did not always come from equal socioeconomic backgrounds or have the same level of education. Over the next several decades, as geographic mobility and the economic rewards of education increased, the "marriage market"—the group of single, employed, mostly young men and women looking for a soul mate and life partner to marry—has become segmented. "Assortative mating," or pairing off with someone whose education and income levels resemble one's own, has become ...

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