Minding the Marriage Gap

Some of the responses to my article contribute to clarifying the areas of agreement and disagreement surrounding contemporary family trends, and some of them really don’t. On the positive side, Stevenson’s and Wolfers’ piece shows how researchers working with very different data and methodologies can produce similar analyses. Their description of the nature of modern marriage rests, in part, on an economic model of the returns to marriage. I got to a similar place by looking through diaries, oral histories, and ethnographies to trace the contradictions, ambivalent feelings, trade-offs, and unanticipated consequences that emerge as people struggle to reconcile personal values and childhood expectations with the constraints and options produced by changes in class, race, and gender relations. I hesitate to use the word “hedonic” to describe modern marriage, because most stable marriages today are based on a high degree of altruism and compromise — more so than in the old days when the sacrifices that couples made for each other were rooted less in altruism than in a lack of alternatives. But Stevenson and Wolfers identify a central feature of modern marriage: that it must be based on closer friendship and more shared interests than in the past precisely because it is no longer held together by social pressures, restrictive laws, and the economic dependence of women on men’s wages.

I also agree with Stevenson and Wolfers that in America today, “increasing the financial stability of … households” is more likely to “lead to marriage rather than marriage leading to financial stability.” As I noted in my first article, the transformation of marriage has “increased the payoffs of marriage for educated, financially-secure women but increased its risks for low-income women whose potential partners are less likely to hold egalitarian values, earn good wages, or even count on a regular job.”

So I was surprised that Kay Hymowitz thinks I ignore “the yawning class divide” between the low rates of marriage among low-income, poorly educated Americans, and the higher rates of marriage among financially stable, well-educated couples. But on the whole, the marriage divide is a reflection, not a fundamental cause, of our class divide. This differs from the past because the class divide of post-industrial societies has interacted with the transformation of modern gender relations in ways that fundamentally change the functions of marriage.

Until the 1960s and 1970s, the gender regime that prevented most women from earning a living wage, and subjected divorced or unwed mothers to severe legal and social handicaps, meant that poorly-educated and low-income women had more to gain from entering and staying in marriage, than from striking out on their own, even if their husband was unkind or dictatorial. Marriage was a woman’s best bet for establishing financial security, especially in the decades when their likely mates, equally poorly-educated men, still had good prospects of securing a living-wage job. By contrast, educated women, or women who aspired to careers, found that marriage exacted costs that sometimes exceeded its benefits. Social customs and legal practices such as the “head and master” laws that remained on the books in most American states until the 1970s gave these women less room to demand the equality and self-development within marriage that their education and skills often led them to expect. Hence the discontent that Betty Friedan famously summed up as “the problem that has no name.”

Today, however, changing laws, economic options, and social norms give an educated woman a greater chance of holding out for a mate who will respect her, and also of exercising more influence within marriage. But for a poorly-educated or low-income woman, getting married is a riskier step than in the past, even if she finds herself pregnant. Over the past several decades, the potential male partners of such women have experienced falling real wages and greater job insecurity.

Women who live in areas of concentrated poverty, the place where young unwed births are most likely to occur, find their marriage prospects especially slim. In many such communities, incarceration rates and low chances of employment make marriageable men scarce. Men in such communities may feel less pressure to settle down, or as Elijah Anderson’s work poignantly shows, may compensate for their inability to play a stable breadwinning role by deciding that only suckers do that anyway. When couples do get together, the pressures of dangerous neighborhoods and chronic income insecurity lead to stresses that often erupt in domestic violence, substance abuse, infidelity, desertion, or divorce.

Poor women who do marry and stay married are better off economically, and their children benefit by having more than one parent in the home. But those who marry and later divorce tend to end up worse off financially, while their children have experienced the kind of disruptions and conflict that pose a much higher risk for bad outcomes than life in a stable single-parent family. Poverty, unemployment, or having children by a previous relationship (as almost 40 percent of low-income partners do) all raise the risk of such marital failure.

So, I agree that there is a yawning class divide in marriage rates and that the inability to build a secure marriage exacerbates economic and social disadvantage, but I disagree that lack of marriage is the central cause of social inequality or that promoting marriage is a realistic way to fight poverty. Hymowitz urges libertarians to support her marriage promotion and abstinence-education agenda by arguing that if poor unwed women would stop having babies we could get rid of intergenerational poverty, reduce social inequality, prevent school failure, delinquency, and drug abuse, increase social and economic mobility, and lessen the demand for taxes “to correct the mess.” This pipe dream underestimates the difficulties of sticking to a middle-class “life script” in a world where the pages are often ripped out of people’s hands by the storms of real life. It exaggerates the intrinsic protective functions of marriage and the dangers inherent in any other family type.

Hymowitz (followed by Glenn) claims that “sophisticated” research studies reveal the causal role of family structure in determining bad outcomes for children. But Hymowitz confuses the correlations these studies document with cause and effect. Rigorous analyses of the impact of single-parent families and teen births find that their strong association with poor outcomes for children is largely (though not wholly) explained by background effects that help produce both the original family situation and the later bad outcomes for children. Poverty, untreated medical or psychological problems, low educational achievement, poor impulse control, and exposure to stressors such as neighborhood violence are all factors that make unwed births or divorce more likely. But each also raises the likelihood of low achievement or maladjustment in children even if their parents are married. The majority of teens who exhibit serious behavior problems have five or more separate risk factors in their lives. And extreme neighborhood poverty (usually coupled with substandard schools) is a particularly potent risk factor for dropping out of school or having a teen birth, whether or not the child was raised by married parents. It also makes it harder for their parents to stay married.

When two exceptional individuals can hold a good — or even satisfactory — marriage together in a severely deprived and stressful environment, that’s certainly an extra protection for their children. But the “good-enough” couples who can do this in more secure environments often fail under these challenges. And unless you believe that a marriage education class can inoculate couples against all the pressures that make a marriage go bad or a parent begin to fail, let’s stop pretending that marriage is some panacea. On average, children from single-parent families have more substance abuse problems than children of two-parent families. But levels of substance abuse are even higher among children of two-parent families who have a poor relationship with their father or experience high conflict between their married parents. I’m all for developing programs to help couples sustain healthy relationships, and there are some tested programs that seem to be quite effective. But they are also very intensive, requiring ongoing interventions that are unlikely to lead to the tax reductions Hymowitz dangles in front of us.

Preventing teen pregnancy is a worthwhile goal for many, many reasons. But it is no cure for poverty. Sociologist Frank Furstenberg conducted a 30-year study of impoverished women in Baltimore. He found that “having a child as a teen… had only modest effects on [women’s] educational and economic achievement in later life, after taking into account their economic circumstances prior to becoming pregnant….Whether they become teen mothers or not, few women in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods and families of the United States experience much mobility, because they are frequently unable to stay in school or obtain well paying and stable employment. Even when their first child is born later in life, such women are rarely able to rely on a stable marriage for long-term economic support.” Indeed, Furstenberg found that only 20 percent of the women who married the father of their child, and just 10 percent of the women who married another man, remained married throughout their children’s lives.

For readers who don’t think that the promise of a marginal decrease in their tax rates is worth climbing into bed with the religious right or the so-called “family values” camp, it is worth noting that the poverty rate of single mothers with a college degree who work fulltime is only 1.2 percent. (Nationally, the poverty rate of families headed by a male breadwinner is 14 percent.). Single-mother families where the woman has some college and a fulltime job have a poverty rate of 7 percent. Marriage education and counseling are worthwhile projects, but they are no substitute for improving public education and providing the child care and after-school programs that allow low-wage mothers to work.

I share libertarians’ disdain for untested social programs that have “blowback” effects, such as many liberal anti-gang initiatives did in the 1960s and many conservative sex education programs do now. And America, more than other advanced industrial nations, has a long history of investing in programs whose main effect is to create new middle-class career paths for bureaucrats or self-appointed experts, rather than directly aiding their intended recipients. But it has been shown time and time again that providing high-quality childcare to impoverished parents is one social program that really works. It reduces children’s likelihood of drug abuse, arrest, teen pregnancy, and school drop out, while freeing their mothers up to work fulltime or earn a college degree. Our choice is between paying some taxes now for a worthwhile program, or paying more taxes later to clean up the mess.

Two short final comments:

1. Hymowitz raises some interesting points about the historical role of childbearing in the definition of marriage, which I suspect she included to justify her opposition to same-sex marriage. She is right to note that through most of history the validity of a marriage depended upon its function in producing children. Christianity, however, broke with all previous religions in repudiating that tradition. The Catholic Church refused to allow a man to divorce his wife or to take a second wife if the marriage was barren. Following that precedent, secular Anglo-American law has never made the validity of a marriage dependent on the ability to procreate.

2. I am not sure why Norval Glenn spent so much time trying to establish that I belong to some school of “irreversibility,” when he ends by noting that his view of the future of marriage “is not radically different” from mine. And it’s always good advice to avoid putting all our eggs in one basket. I’d be delighted to work with anyone who wants to combine tested programs to support healthy marriages with equally rigorously-designed programs to deliver advice and resources to unwed and divorced parents.

But I was puzzled by Glenn’s global warming analogy, which I think actually bolsters my position. As Glenn notes, global warming stems from the same creative forces that unleashed and sustained the industrial revolution and its global spread. Trying to re-establish a global agrarian economy is not the way get rid of the pollution that has accompanied industrialization. Instead, we must retool our industrial practices to develop sustainable agriculture and minimize the environmental impact of further economic expansion.

Shouldn’t it be the same with marriage? Can’t we welcome the gains that have come with the expanded opportunities and status of women, the abolition of harsh penalties for illegitimacy, and the freedom to remain single or divorce, while trying to preserve sustainable couple relationships and minimize the negative consequences that can accompany family transitions? Family diversity is here to stay, no matter what proponents of “re-institutionalizing” marriage may wish. Not only can we learn to live with family diversity, but diverse families can thrive.

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

  • The Marriage Gap by Kay S. Hymowitz

    Kay S. Hymowitz, the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that Stephanie Coontz’s sketch of the state of marriage is badly incomplete, failing to acknowledge the class divide in marriage and childrearing. “This marriage gap,” she writes, “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.” According to Hymowitz, “The de-linking of marriage and childrearing is a particular dilemma in the Unites States … [W]hat you have is a recipe for entrenched, trans-generational poverty, inequality, racial disparities …, reduced social and economic mobility, and – libertarians take note! – demands for government taxes to fund programs to correct the mess.”

  • 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