Let me confess: I’m a lucky guy. When I started courting my soon-to-be-wife back in 2005, she quickly let me know she wasn’t a diamond kind of gal. So when I proposed, it was with a (very inexpensive) garnet ring, made by a local jeweler, of her choosing. When we got married, we sealed the deal with simple gold bands. And we did so at a wedding that we did our damndest to make as cheap, fun and low-maintenance as possible. All of which proved, as far as I was concerned, that we were a good fit.
So it’s possible that I have a bias when I ask the following, very-serious question:
Are American weddings destroying our economy and our society?
Like I say, this is a very serious question, because it gets at the heart of an issue that politicians increasingly can’t ignore: Income inequality. Over the last 40 years or so, America’s rich have gotten richer — much, much richer — while incomes for the poor and middle class have stagnated. There are a lot of possible causes for all of this: Tax policy, de-unionization, globalization, immigration and so forth.
When conservatives acknowledge that there’s a problem, though, they tend to offer one solution: Marriage.
Poor people used to marry each other, conservatives say. Now they don’t. If they’d simply get together, most couples could combine their incomes to the point that they’d lift themselves out of poverty and into the middle class.
“The decline in marriage rates among poorer men and women robs parents of supplemental income, of work-life balance, and of time to prepare a child for school,” Derek Thompson wrote last year in The Atlantic. “Single-parenthood and inter-generational poverty feed each other. The marriage gap and the income gap amplify one another.”
Conservatives like this version of the story for a few reasons. It reduces income inequality to the result of bad choices made by the poor, and those bad choices produced by forces conservatives don’t like: The sexual revolution, feminism, even reliance on government safety net programs.
One problem: This diagnosis might get everything backwards. Income inequality might not be the result of our society’s abandonment of marriage — it might be the cause.
That’s a pretty clear implication of Kay Steiger’s piece Tuesday at The Frisky:
The deck is stacked against buyers of engagement rings. Diamond rings, which are in plentiful supply around the world, are actually getting more, not less expensive. That’s in large part because the entire cost of getting married seems to be going up and up. Even the estimated median cost of an American wedding, $18,086 — which clocks in at significantly less than than the astonishingly high average cost of $28,427 — clocks in at more than a full-time minimum wage worker earns in a year. The more we make weddings about the stuff we’re supposed to feel obligated to buy, the more we’re making marriage into an exclusive club with a velvet rope set up along class lines.
And, well, of course: We all know about the arms race to produce the biggest, best, most elaborate wedding possible. What we’ve not considered is how that arms race might affect those who can’t afford it.
Now, as Steiger notes, there’s no requirement that weddings involve diamond rings and the commitment of a year’s salary to pay for the bash. Then again she, like my wife and I, is a well-educated person who can easily identify, evaluate and choose to flout cultural norms and make a bourgeois virtue out of doing so. That’s less easy for poorer folks to do. (It’s also a case where conservatives want to have it both ways: They want cultural norms to have enough force that people are embarrassed, even shamed to be together and making children without being married, but not so powerful that people feel shame at not providing the kind of wedding everybody expects.)
The result? “The message that marriage is only for the upper crust is one that’s well-received by those with a less than high school diploma,” Steiger writes.
Which means that poor man and poor woman never get married. They never combine forces to lift themselves out of poverty. And in many cases, they never get the joy — or non-economic discipline — that comes from partnering with somebody to share a life and raise a family. That’s a loss that reverberates beyond mere economics.
But it is a loss based in economics. Income inequality isn’t bad just because the rich get richer and the rest of us are jealous. It affects the way we see and relate to each other, and ultimately damages all of us.
Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.