The Possibility for Fruitful Collaboration

Sharp debates over questions such as the potential impact of marriage promotion in reducing poverty or the effect of single parenthood on child outcomes are sometimes necessary, because our political climate is filled with simplistic claims that ignore complex family interactions, confuse correlations with cause and effect, promise one-step solutions for social ills, and ignore the fact that in the real world divorce or single parenthood may be preferable to a corrosive marriage. But for the record, let me state clearly that I support efforts to create solid foundations for healthy marriages and two-parent families.

Helping people form and sustain healthy marriages and co-parenting alliances is immensely important, and I respect the work that many people in the marriage movement do. Psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan have designed superb, scientifically-conducted, programs to foster healthy marriages and other partner relationships, with impressive results. Research institutions such as Mathematica have produced outstanding data on the strengths (and limits) of different ways of conducting such programs. The PREP marriage education program has been shown to be very effective. Norval Glenn is a serious researcher whom I have always respected even when we disagree.

And many participants in the loose alliance of groups lumped together as “the marriage movement,” especially those sometimes labeled “marriage plus,” recognize that marriage preparation, education, and counseling must be combined with concrete support systems for impoverished families, including trying to create living-wage jobs for men and women in impoverished communities.

The possibility for fruitful collaboration is clear. A recent ethnographic study by Paula England and Kathryn Edin points out that traditional liberal and conservative approaches are each half right and half wrong in their analysis of why relationships between impoverished unwed parents are unstable. Lack of resources, not values, is the main barrier to marriage for these folks, but lack of relationship commitment and skills is what breaks them up. England and Edin conclude that both economic reforms and relationship counseling are needed to increase the stability of relationships in distressed and impoverished communities.

So I am sorry if my remarks distressed any of the sincere and capable people attempting to promote healthy marriages. But let’s be clear. Large sections of the religious right most certainly do flaunt the “family values” mantle. They push marriage as the solution to all our social ills and refuse to accept that any family form except their own ideal can work effectively. They are wrong. Their ideas are dangerous and counterproductive. The point of my last blog post was to caution libertarians against unprincipled alliances with such groups just because they oppose taxation for welfare, job creation, or public projects.

I hope this clarifies my rejoinder. Now I will get out of the way and let other people discuss these issues.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.”

  • 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.”

  • 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.