Although marriage rates are declining in America, the trend is most dramatic among those with less formal education and generally nearer the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. In 2008, 64% of college graduates were married, while only 48% of those with a high school diploma or less tied the knot. Contrast this with 1960, when 76% of college graduates and 72% of those who never attended college married. More than 50 percent of new mothers without college degrees are unmarried, compared with only 7 percent of mothers with college diplomas With the ever widening income gap between the well-educated and the less-educated, the marriage rate to income correlation is increasing.

The vast majority of adults in the U.S. eventually do get married, however. Among those ages 45 and older roughly 9 in 10 either are currently or, at some point, have been married. The trend, however, is to delay marriage and enter first into less traditional family arrangements. In 1960, 68% of adults ages 20-29 were married. By 2008, only 26% were married. About two-thirds (64%) say they thought of this living arrangement as a step toward marriage.

A recent Pew Research Center study on The Decline of Marriage And Rise of New Families surveyed 2,691 adults by phone, analyzed 2008 census data, and used polls previously conducted by Time magazine to identify trends from earlier decades to characterize current American attitudes, beliefs, and trends with respect to marriage. Nearly 4 in 10 respondents (39%) believe that marriage is becoming obsolete. To put this in perspective, in a 1978 Time magazine survey, only 28% agreed with this viewpoint. With the decline and delay of marriage, cohabitation (or living together as unmarried partners) has become more widespread, nearly doubling since 1990. 44% of all adults say they have cohabited at some point in their lives. About two-thirds (64%) of these, however, say that they thought of this living arrangement as a step toward marriage.

The lack of economic security appears to be a key reason keeping many people from getting married. Economically strapped young couples may be choosing to skip or delay marriage and just move in together, assuming that they are being prudent. Ironically, they may be paying a far higher price than they recognize.

As the country spends less time in marriage, a smaller proportion of adults are experiencing the economic gains typically experienced by married couples. People who married saw income increases of 50 to 100 percent, and net wealth increases of 400 to 600 percent, according to a study of 7,608 household heads between 1984 and 1989. Continuously married households, on average, had about double the income and four times the net worth of those that were not. More recently, in 2008, the median household income of married adults was 41% greater than that of unmarried adults, even after adjustments for differences in household size are made. Unmarried couples are less likely to pool their resources, feel less obligated to spend wisely and save, and invest less in the future of the household than their counterparts who have made the commitment of marriage.

Americans, in large part, do not consider the economics of marriage as an important reason to get hitched. Instead, and rightly so, love, lifelong commitment, and companionship top the list of reasons to get married. Nonetheless, it is puzzling whether the current marriage trends are, at least in part, are an outcome of the challenging economic times or, instead, whether the social trend towards marriage becoming more aligned with education and financial position is actually helping to widen the income gap between rich and poor. In reality, the relationship between marriage rate and our economic health as a nation are surely related in different and more complex ways.