As U.S. marriage rate plummets, Elvis has left the wedding chapel
Roland August has officiated at thousands of weddings in Las Vegas, the selfproclaimed capital of “I do.”
But these days August, who often presides dressed as Elvis Presley, has a rare vantage point from which to observe the nation’s long shift toward “I don’t.”
Nevada’s marriage rate has plummeted in recent decades, an extreme version of a pullback happening across the U.S. The forces that have reshaped the nation’s economic life since the 1970s have helped make marriage an institution increasingly reserved for the well-educated and more affluent. A spate of recent research suggests America’s marriage gap is cementing disadvantage.
The wedding chapels where August works have seen business dwindle, he said, and Vegas is pushing to reverse the decline in an industry that generates as much as $3 billion in economic activity annually. In 2015 the surrounding county introduced a $14 surcharge on marriage licenses to pay for marketing, and local business leaders helped start a Wedding Chamber of Commerce last year. The data show an effort working against a broader national shift.
“Life has prioritized things differently,” August said.
Marriage has become a clear dividing line in a stratified country. Its decline is most pronounced among those who didn’t go beyond high school, as better educated people tend to marry each other.
Half of Americans older than 18 were married in 2014, down from 72 percent in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center. The shift is more pronounced for the less educated, which is a loose proxy for income: As of 2014, almost 75 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees were married by their early 40s, versus less than 60 percent of women with only a highschool diploma, according to the Brookings Institution.
Economic changes disrupted the traditional sequence of mating and marrying, helped by shifting mores. The change has become entrenched, according to a paper this year by Melissa Kearney, a University of Maryland professor. In U.S. regions where fracking sharply increased in recent years, wages for working-class men shot up, as did births. Marriage didn’t.
Still, not all the news is bad. Fewer marriages make for fewer divorces, for one thing, and nonmarital births are declining after peaking before the recession.
The U.S. marriage rate remains higher than that of many developed nations — including France, Spain and Italy — yet the American drop-off has come with especially tough economic effects, perhaps because of the more limited social safety net.
The Silver State has felt America’s changing trends acutely, because it hosts more weddings than any other and has historically taken a permissive stance on divorce and marriage.
Oscar Goodman, who was Las Vegas mayor from 1999 to 2011, can even see a silver lining. In an era of fewer weddings, more single people may be willing to spend money on entertainment at casinos and other attractions, he said.
“People come here to have their wedding, and people come here to avoid a wedding,” Goodman said. “Nobody should cry for Las Vegas.”
A bride arrives at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas, which has seen firsthand the decline of marriage in the United States.