The Marriage Gap

Let me begin with a slightly different description than the one given by Stephanie Coontz of where we are marriage-wise in the United States today. She alludes to the fact that almost half of all marriages end in divorce. She also points out that close to 40% of children – 38% — are born to unmarried mothers. What she does not mention is that there is a yawning class divide hidden inside these numbers. The large majority of individuals who are divorced or who are never-married parents are low-income and lacking a college, and in many cases a high school, degree. The large majority of middle-class men and women, on the other hand, marry before having children and stay married while raising them. When she assures us that marriage is not on the verge of extinction, she’s right – if you’re white and went to college.

This marriage gap, as I call it, has profound implications for our political, social and economic prospects for one simple reason: overall, children do better in life if they are raised by their own married parents. Believe me, social scientists didn’t want to reach this conclusion and throughout the 1970’s and 80’s they blithely assured us it couldn’t be true. But as research methods have become more sophisticated and as studies have poured in, there has been no escaping it: even controlling for race, income, and maternal education, children raised by single mothers are more prone to school failure, delinquency, emotional problems, alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and becoming single parents themselves. Put together these two facts – a breakdown of marriage among low-income men and women and worse outcomes for children of single parents – and what you have is a recipe for entrenched, trans-generational poverty, inequality, racial disparities (the black extramarital birth rate is over 70%, almost twice as high as the national average), reduced social and economic mobility, and – libertarians take note! – demands for government taxes to fund programs to correct the mess.

The fact that even in an age that celebrates family diversity kids are better off growing up with their married parents points us to the glaring omission in Coontz’s thumbnail history of marriage: children. She states that “marriage has been about picking the right in-laws”; wealthy families sought advantageous connections and the middle class sought respectability. This thesis is like confusing shopping for a car with transportation. It vaults past the obvious fact that unless you had a son and your chosen in-laws had a daughter or vice versa, there was no picking to be done. Evolution has presented societies with three fundamental problems: one, humans’ favorite activity, sexual intercourse, leads to babies; two, those babies are helpless for years, leaving their mothers in need of help if both are to survive; three, men have a tenuous tie to those babies. Marriage was the institution designed to solve this predicament; as the anthropologist Malinowski best described, it tied a man to a woman and their children.

Yes, marriage has had other social purposes. Depending on the culture, it provided companionship, it organized kinship groups, it regulated inheritance of property; as reproduction-is-basic-to-marriage skeptics often observe, many cultures have allowed older women, generally widows, to marry if they had enough wealth to attract a suitor. (Less liberal cultures declared them useless and had them burn themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres.) Yet there were many other conceivable ways to regulate property or provide companionship; it was the inevitability of children in a sexual union that made marriage the universal human institution that it became.

If this theory is correct, then Coontz’s analysis of what happened after “the Sixties” or what Francis Fukuyama calls “The Great Disruption,” also misses the big picture. No question about it, Coontz is correct that love — actually I would put it more generally as personal fulfillment — became more central to our understanding of marriage. No question also that after The Disruption people began marrying later than they had in earlier decades, that they starting living together outside of marriage, and that more decided to opt out of wedded bliss altogether. And yes, women’s liberation, affluence, and technological advances created the conditions that enabled these choices. But the chasm that separates the post-sixties and the rest of human history is the belief that marriage and childbearing /childrearing could go their separate ways. Working mothers are not new; marrying at later ages is not new. A large population of single mothers and fatherless children? Now, that’s new.

This history is worth so many pixels because Coontz’s presumption that marriage is not fundamentally linked with reproduction and childrearing has become commonplace in American society. In surveys half of young women say they might consider having a child outside of marriage. Courts are putting the idea into law. Yet here we are almost 40 years after the children-are-one-thing-and-marriage-is-another revolution began and even with mass affluence that relieves us of some of evolution’s burden by making single motherhood more economically viable, we find that kids growing up with their married parents are still in a better place in life’s sweepstakes. Doesn’t that suggest that the revolutionaries were — are — missing something?

Now, as Coontz observes, this is an international revolution. In much of Western Europe, out of wedlock childbearing is even more commonplace than in the United States; in 2007 more than half of French babies were born to unmarried women. Growing affluence, women’s independence, a global media, the de-stigmatization of sex outside of marriage, and increasing expectations for self-fulfillment are accompanying skyrocketing divorce rates in more unlikely places like Japan, China, and the former countries of the Soviet Union, though out-of-wedlock childbearing remains rare, likely because it constitutes the most radical rejection of human custom.

But I would suggest that the de-linking of marriage and childrearing is a particular dilemma in the United States for reasons that libertarians should find compelling. In America, marriage has been inextricably entwined with national ideals of political and economic freedom. Following the theories of the Enlightenment and John Locke, the founders rejected the clannish, patriarchal arrangements of the old country and placed their hopes in what we might call republican marriage. The self-choosing, nuclear couple was to be an economically self-sufficient unit; it was also supposed to socialize the next generation of independent, upstanding republicans, an endeavor that the founders understood to be labor-intensive. Contemporary affluence does not ease the inherent difficulty of raising children in America; in fact, given the intense educational preparation required for success in a knowledge economy, it has made raising kids harder. The founders certainly wouldn’t be surprised to hear that children growing up with their married parents are more likely to graduate from high school and to go to and graduate from college than their single-parented peers. The marriage gap, in other words, produces a human capital gap.

Coontz says we “know a lot… about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully…” Actually, we don’t. The United States has spent billions trying to prop up fatherless families through welfare payments, nutrition programs, early childhood education, Title 1, child support, and a teeming, maddening family court system. We don’t have much to show for it. I have no idea whether it is possible to restore our understanding of the core meaning of marriage, or to put it in more concrete terms, to increase the percentage of American children growing with their married parents. This is a cultural problem and it’s hard to see that outside warnings from the bully pulpit, government can do very much about it. But I do know that a future that accepts the separation of marriage and childrearing will severely challenge some of America’s core ideals, not least of them, limited government.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Future of Marriage by Stephanie Coontz

    In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, briefly lays out the history of marriage to understand its present and future. “Today, when a marriage works,” Coontz argues, “it delivers more benefits to its members – adults and children – than ever before.” However, “the same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation.” Instead of trying to resurrect a bygone ideal of marriage, those of us interested in encouraging healthy families now need to focus on what makes unmarried co-parents, single parents, cohabiting couples, as well as contemporary marriages successful on their own terms.

Response Essays

  • Marriage and the Market by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers

    Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the Univesity of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “re-frame Coontz’s careful history of the family in the language of economics,” exploring the economic forces underlying changes in marriage. Modern marriage, Stevenson and Wolfers argue, is marked by “a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption.” Modern marriage, which they call “hedonic marriage,” is more centered on love and companionship. Marriage as such isn’t doomed, they claim, but “marriage in which one person specializes in the home while the other person specializes in the market is indeed doomed,” especially as women’s educational levels begin to surpass men’s. Attempts to “re-regulate” the family to fit a classic ideal, they argue “may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U.S. family.”

  • Against Family Fatalism by Norval D. Glenn

    In his reply, University of Texas sociologist Norval D. Glenn, identifies Stephanie Coontz as a member of the “family-change-is-irreversible school of thought,” which he says “includes the view that attempts to retard, stop, or reverse any major aspect of recent family change are futile and thus are at best a waste of effort and at worst downright harmful…” But, Glenn asks, don’t liberals generally think policy can mitigate the consequences of economic change? Moreover, is anyone really asking to return to some Golden Age of marriage? There is evidence, Glenn submits, that marriage trends will further improve and that policy interventions, like marriage education, can help.

The Conversation