Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America

By Andrew J. Cherlin

Russell Sage Foundation, 258 pages

What happened to the working-class sitcoms? In his new book about the wages of class division in America, Labor’s Love Lost, Andrew Cherlin often refers to classic shows such as The HoneymoonersAll in the Family, and Roseanne. But today we have Modern Family and black-ish—programs in which the characters are all professionals or stay-at-home mothers and no one is ever worried about money. Maybe Americans simply prefer the escape of watching rich people. But it is also true that those earlier shows are no longer in sync with the lives of American wage-earners. Today’s working-class people don’t live within the bounds of the traditional family structures that remain the setting of domestic-situation comedies. That change is the focus of Cherlin’s book.

Between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of children living with unmarried mothers without a high school degree almost doubled for whites, from 18 to 30 percent. The correlating percentage for nonwhite mothers is higher, at 40 percent. For children whose mothers are college-educated, however, the percentage has barely moved: For whites, it’s gone from 8 to 9 percent; for nonwhites, from roughly 15 to 20 percent.

Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, is not the first person to notice this divergence between the family structures of the upper and lower classes. Kay Hymowitz’s book Marriage and Caste in America shed light on the phenomenon almost a decade ago. What Cherlin adds to the literature is a historical perspective on the way America’s working class has viewed marriage. He argues that working-class family structure has changed in part due to economics—specifically, that income inequality has been a driving factor in bringing down marriage rates.

According to Cherlin, an analogous change occurred during the Gilded Age. In the late 19th century, as today, he argues, “young men with moderate skills may have had a harder time finding the kinds of occupations that could support marriage.” But by the mid-20th century, both parity and opportunity abounded. “It was much easier in the low-inequality 1950s and 1960s for a young man in the middle of the labor market to land a job that could provide the foundation for family life.”

Since then, the trend has reverted. Seen on a graph, the percentage of married men who were employed in working-class jobs (manufacturing, construction, or transportation) between 1880 and 2010 looks like a mountain. The number reaches its peak after World War II, with 43 percent of white husbands and 51 percent of black husbands employed in one of these industries. The postwar boom not only made it possible for working-class men to afford to take care of families, but it also allowed them to adopt the new middle class’s sensibilities about gender roles and child-rearing.

Working-class parents could let their children go to school instead of having them labor in factories or on farms (child-labor laws also ensured this shift), and wives could do less work both inside and outside the home and spend more time nurturing children. Of course they had fewer children, owing to the fact that non-working children cost more money than they earn. The employment boom meant that working-class fathers could buy suburban homes and even save some money for their kids’ futures.

In drawing attention to income inequality—as opposed to simply income—Cherlin seems to be arguing that the middle and upper-middle classes set the standard for what one needed to provide for a family in order to get married. Historically, he suggests, working-class men needed more than a job to find a wife and have kids—they wanted to provide a certain standard of living. For white working-class men to achieve what Cherlin calls “the masculinity imperative,” this meant ensuring that a wife’s work was restricted to the home—even if that included taking care of boarders or doing sewing and mending for other families.

Today, this is a common theme heard when members of the working class are interviewed about their domestic arrangements. They still largely idealize marriage but base their understanding of its financial requirements on the lifestyles of wealthier Americans. So if the upper classes don’t get married until they can afford lavish weddings and have enough money saved for a downpayment on a house, until they’ve already completed their education and have a clear career path, then working-class people come to think that they, too, must achieve those milestones in order to marry.

The difference between the Gilded Age and our own is that in the 19th century, single men merely lived on the periphery of society and single women became spinster aunts who contributed to the lives of their extended families. Such fates weren’t ideal, but they didn’t carry with them the consequences that low marriage rates do today. Which is to say that back then, unmarried singles didn’t have children. Now they do.

The birth-control pill separated sex from childbearing and people’s attitudes changed accordingly. Between 1965 and 1972, the proportion of Americans who approved of premarital sex went from 17 to 50 percent. Similarly, the percentage of people who believed that married couples should stay together for the children even if they didn’t get along fell precipitously. As attitudes about the seriousness of sex and the necessity of intact families grew lax, the Pill, ironically, opened the door to a new age of single-parent children.

Having a child or children is something that today’s women know they want to do no matter what, Cherlin explains—but to get married, they have decided they need to find the right man for them. Cherlin quotes a woman from a study in Columbus, Ohio, who had already borne a child with a man who had subsequently asked her to marry him several times. She turned him down because, she said, “I want this to be because you are marrying me, not because you’re marrying me because I’m pregnant.” While there are a great many “shotgun cohabitations” these days, there are not very many shotgun marriages.

Of course, the culture is partly to blame. But Cherlin has a point about the impact of other factors. As he notes, the culture doesn’t seem to have affected the upper classes in the same way. It’s true that for decades the upper classes have publicly embraced cultural shifts by downplaying the importance of two-parent families, religious institutions, and any but the most fulfilling work. But all the while they have continued to get married, go to church, and work longer hours than their lower-class peers. And they continue to raise children with two parents.

Cherlin doesn’t give much credence to the idea that welfare programs produced the disincentive to marry among the lower classes—since those programs were not in place during the period of low marriage rates in the late 19th century. But this is where his analogy fails. The problem with increased welfare is that the government replaces the role of the man in the home by providing for children. Since children were not a factor for the unmarried in the 19th century, no plausible parallel between now and then can be drawn. Just because there were low marriage rates in both periods doesn’t necessarily mean they happened for the same reasons.

So what is to be done? Cherlin treads with extreme caution, very gently making the case that having stable, married parents would be best for children. But he suggests that pushing a return to traditional norms for the working class is simply not feasible. Even practical approaches, such as marriage-preparation classes, sadly have little to no effect on the behavior of the lower classes.

Cherlin argues instead for improving the economic outlook of the working-class men who have born the brunt of inequality. He wants to raise the minimum wage and make unions more powerful again. He waxes poetic about the United Auto Workers 1950 agreement with management. “It won contracts that included cost of living increases, annual wage increases, and benefits such as pensions and health insurance.” Rising productivity, he writes, “increased the size of the pie to be divided between labor and capital.” Thus, “income inequality…remained low.” But about the deleterious effects those pensions would come to have on today’s working class, Cherlin has little to say. Such selective analysis hurts his case. So, too, do his lackluster policy proposals. He offers suggestions about education as a way to help the working class: more universal preschool, improved access to higher education, more vocational education programs. But he dismisses charter schools as producing little improvement on average, and he’s altogether silent on school vouchers for the poor. Still, Cherlin’s book offers a worthwhile history lesson, and the effort he devotes to understanding the marriage gap is a positive sign that people from across the political spectrum do recognize the importance of two-parent families in raising productive citizens.

Perhaps Cherlin is right that a smaller divide between the rich and poor will encourage the working class to marry more often and give children the kind of family environment they need for future success. In the meantime, the message from the upper classes should be “Do as we do, not as we say.”


Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and author of ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.