As U.S. mar­riage rate plum­mets, Elvis has left the wed­ding chapel

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - NATION | WORLD - By Jeanna Smialek

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.”

Jon­nie Cham­bers / Bloomberg

A bride ar­rives at a wed­ding chapel in Las Ve­gas, which has seen first­hand the de­cline of mar­riage in the United States.

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