Even in Sweden, Marriage Matters

11.23.2012, 10:47 PM

This week, Paul Krugman dismissed Ross Douthat’s concern about the retreat from marriage in America by suggesting that the Swedish example shows us that a generous welfare state can more than make up for an anemic marriage culture:

In Sweden, more than half of children are born out of wedlock— but they don’t seem to suffer much as a result, perhaps because the welfare state is so strong. Maybe we’ll go that way too. So?

Here, as elsewhere, Krugman typifies the ignorance at the heart of much progressive thinking about marriage and family life. For, even in Sweden, a small, homogenous, and egalitarian nation that looks and feels nothing like the United States, marriage matters. Three quick points:

1) Even in Sweden, the institution of marriage seems to furnish an important measure of stability to children. As we pointed out in Why Marriage Matters, children in Sweden who are “born out of wedlock” to cohabiting parents are 75 percent more likely to see their parents separate, compared to children born to married parents. By age 15, 34 percent of children born to cohabiting parents have witnessed their parents’ break up, compared to just 19 percent of children born to married parents, according to demographers Sheela Kennedy and Elizabeth Thomson.

2) Even in Sweden, the retreat from marriage seems to be connected to increases in family instability and single parenthood. For instance, Kennedy and Thomson’s article indicates that family instability increased by more than 25 percent in Sweden over the last four decades. (Strikingly, their article also suggests that family instability is rising most quickly among high school-educated Swedes, much like it is in the United States.) Part of the story here is undoubtedly about the family fallout associated with economic globalization, but part of the story here is also undoubtedly about the increasing popularity of nonmarital childbearing in Sweden over this period.

3) Even in Sweden, children in single-parent families do worse than children in two-parent families, and we know from Kennedy and Thomson’s work that Swedish children born outside of marriage are more likely to end up in single-parent families. For instance, a Lancet study of the entire population of Swedish children found that children in single-parent families were about twice as likely to suffer from serious psychological problems, drug use, alcohol abuse, and attempted suicide, compared to children in two-parent families.

So, even in Sweden, with one of the world’s strongest welfare states, children “seem to suffer” when marriage disappears.


19 Responses to “Even in Sweden, Marriage Matters”

  1. Mr. Wilcox is begging the question in several ways. Neither of these columns is really about marriage.

    In his column last week, Douthat was expressing his frustration with recent immigrants voting Democratic:

    But they’re also winning recent immigrants because those immigrants often aren’t assimilating successfully — or worse, are assimilating downward, thanks to rising out-of-wedlock birthrates and high dropout rates. The Democratic edge among Hispanics depends heavily on these darker trends: the weaker that families and communities are, the more necessary government support inevitably seems.

    I take issue with a number of Douthat assertions. However, doing so is off topic.

    As for Dr. Krugman, he is not addressing the correctness of children born out of wedlock. Rather, he is advocating for the kind of economy that can support out-of-wedlock births. Doing so is not going to create more single parents

    Oh well, at least Brad is not blaming the gays for something. Or is he?

  2. Diane M says:

    You’re right, David Cary Hart, the Douthat column is really about other issues than Sweden. I am getting sick of the Republican narrative that they lost because people want government benefits. There were so many other issues involved in the election!

  3. Diane M says:

    I find the Swedish data interesting in two ways:

    1. It confirms a lot of the data from America: cohabiting parents are more likely to break-up than married ones and children in single-parent families do worse than children in two-parent families.

    2. Nevertheless, Swedish families all seem to be more stable. Most of the children get to keep their parents, whether they are married or not.

    So the big question is, what are they doing that keeps couples together?

    There are so many things that are different about our cultures, but I would nominate a few of my favorites:

    extensive maternal leave so you can be with your kids

    a shorter work week that lets you have a life

    access to medical care to keep you healthy

    not having to worry about not being able to afford medical care or college for your kids

    I suspect they also have welfare benefits that go to all citizens, without requiring you to be a single parent.

  4. Amber Lapp says:

    A strong welfare state cannot correct matters of the heart. A break-up of the union that made you can cause an identity crisis no matter what your economic state of being is.

  5. annajcook says:

    Well, I’d say there’s some truth to the notion that the Republicans lost because (some) people want a strong social safety net and robust welfare supports. I’m grateful that when my wife and I were uninsured graduate students, for example, the state of Massachusetts made it possible for us to get robust, low-to-no-cost health insurance subsidized by the government. Thanks to the government, for a few years anyway, we had access to mental and physical, dental and eyecare we otherwise would have had no hope of affording. I’m thrilled that Obamacare will go some way toward making those services available to more citizens nationwide.

    Likewise, I’m really glad that my friends who are currently unemployed have access to government programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc. These programs are often not nearly enough (our method of calculating cost of living is radically out-dated) and cumbersome to access — but I absolutely want more, not less, of the safety net programs that ensure fewer Americans are living in poverty.

    Ideally, of course, I’d like to see a nationwide effort to eradicate poverty be front and center of our government’s agenda, but since the 1970s we haven’t seen poor people count for much in politics except as people to be held in contempt or blamed for the ills of the nation.

  6. Mont D. Law says:

    Here are some points from the study that Mr. Wilcox didn’t think relevant.

    [ This apparent normalization of cohabiting partnerships is also reflected in relatively low levels of separation among cohabiting couples with children. Although children born to cohabiting parents are more likely to experience separation than children born to married parents, the difference is smaller in Sweden than in any other country for which we have data ]

    [Sweden also has a very low rate of births to women living alone]

    [Out-of-union births have remained uncommon in Sweden, making up just 3% of all births in each decade]

    (as parental education increases, the likelihood that a child will experience the dissolution of their parents’ union decreases. Parents with primary- and secondary-level education are 73% and 35% more likely to separate than parents with tertiary-level education.)

    [What we see as decreasing stability among the least-educated could instead be interpreted as a shift of the most stable and capable parents into a higher-educated category.]

    [Thus, our findings suggest that social policies have the potential to minimize inequality in children's access to a stable family life.]

  7. Kevin says:

    “Here, as elsewhere, Krugman typifies the ignorance at the heart of much progressive thinking about marriage and family life.”

    Actually, Mr. Wilcox, progressives tend to support social programs that keep families in stress together, rather than defaulting to the laissez-faire beliefs of the conservatives, who prioritize letting unfettered “market forces” over security. Anyone who really supports the family wants government programs in place (because who else but the government is reliable and has the resources?) that provide a financial and health safety net, in order to keep families together in times of stress.

    Progressives also support family planning, so that unwanted children are avoided, and children who can’t be supported are avoided. Progressives support equal pay for women, who are often the primary breadwinner in a family.

    Yours was a cheap shot at progressives and a “fail.” Political conservatives are no friend to the notion of a secure and happy family that stays together.

  8. Matthew Kaal says:

    Anyone who really supports the family wants government programs in place (because who else but the government is reliable and has the resources?) that provide a financial and health safety net, in order to keep families together in times of stress.

    I think one of the primary issues where conservatives and progressives disagree is that conservatives would much rather other institutions step up reliably with the resources needed to support stressed families. Until the early 20th century this was the more common reality (an admittedly inadequate one, even then). This is why we conservatives talk so much about the importance of families, neighborhoods, churches, civic groups, unions, and private associations – these institutions are actually much better suited to address the needs of individual families contextually – whereas the government’s limited role is to provide for security and stability so that communities can go about doing the work of communities.

    And just to be clear – I am not pie-in-the-sky optimistic – I get that the reason we’ve empowered the state is because all these other institutions are failing. As a conservative my answer to that question is not to continue empowering government to (badly) provide stop-gap measures, but rather to advocate for restoring our other institutions so that they are strong enough to provide the services our communities need.

  9. La Lubu says:

    This is why we conservatives talk so much about the importance of families, neighborhoods, churches, civic groups, unions, and private associations….

    *cough* Conservatives support labor unions? When? Where? A good part of the reason why working class families are suffering in this modern economy is because of the full-bore attack by conservatives on labor unions for the past forty-odd years.

    Beyond that, I have to disagree that private charities provide better support for families in need. Unemployment Insurance has done more to keep families solvent than breadlines, both historically and today. Mind you, I’m not philosophically opposed to private charity (and I donate to several myself)—I’ve just never seen it come even close to providing the help that publically-funded relief does (and that’s even setting aside the charities that cherry-pick who they choose to help).

  10. Matthew Kaal says:

    La Lubu,

    I would argue that most real conservatives (as opposed to ideologues and Republicans) see the value in labor unions – they provide a needed check on employers that might not otherwise exist, and which allows laborers to have a stronger voice in how they are compensated, how their workplace is regulated for safety, and how the businesses they work for are managed. Where conservatives have issues with unions is when they become undemocratic and overly politicized. I would argue that real conservatives also have major issues with businesses the fail to treat their workers with dignity and respect, and which over politicize the process for their own benefit.

    And your point about charity often failing to do the work that is needed is valid – which is why I haven’t advocated for a full abolition of government social programs, but rather that we continue to bolster other institutions to spread the load and allow government to be one robust column instead of the entire support system. Eventually if we felt confident that our communities support themselves, then our elected representatives would make prudential judgments about how to re-allocate resources.

  11. Diane M says:

    “A strong welfare state cannot correct matters of the heart. A break-up of the union that made you can cause an identity crisis no matter what your economic state of being is.”

    Yes, but Amber Lapp, it looks like in Sweden your parents are much less likely to break up. What if something about the social welfare state keeps families together?

  12. KellyK says:

    I’ve read that, in order for religious institutions to provide all the support that government programs do for needy people, every single house of worship in the country would have to raise an additional $50,000 a year, on top of whatever charitable aid they already provide.

    I think people who say that private charity should be the primary source of aid to needy people drastically underestimate how much aid is actually needed.

    Slashing public services and expecting communities and volunteer organizations to pick up the slack strikes me as backwards. I would like to see everyone who says “That’s the church’s/private charity’s job,” to demonstrate that their particular religious or civic organization could handle that burden. Where would they come up with that additional fifty grand? (Without assuming that cutting services would result in lower taxes for their parishioners, who would just give more—which might or might not happen.)

  13. Matthew Kaal says:

    KellyK,

    I am brushing up against the comment limit so this will likely be my last comment for a while, but I’d say that in order for those churches (and synagogues, and temples, and mosques, and Elk lodges, and…) to come up with an additional 50k a year would require greater generosity from the average American. I would direct you to IAV’s work on Thrift and Generosity to give an outline of the sorts of values that would need to be broadly cultivated to allow us to begin relying on private charities for many of these needs. And I am not only thinking about private charity when I mention other institutions. We’d need to see a change in how employers think about their responsibilities to employees – and I recognize that this requires more than a purely market driven approach (not all conservatives are libertarians, some of us understand the concept of market failures).

    Like I said, I am not blindly optimistic. I realize we are using government because it is one of the few truly powerful institutions capable of taking on the burdens of our struggling communities. I am not advocating for abolition of all social programs, but rather that we change direction and begin rebuilding other institutions to do some of this work (and do it better). I am thinking multi-generational project, not band-aids.

  14. Kevin says:

    “I think one of the primary issues where conservatives and progressives disagree is that conservatives would much rather other institutions step up reliably with the resources needed to support stressed families.”

    I think both conservatives and progressives would be happy to see private or parochial institutions address the needs of stressed families. But it looks like they won’t, don’t or can’t. The disagreement exists in what to do about that: say “Oh well, tough luck to you, suffering family” or “let’s harness the power of our shared government to step in.” Progressives choose the latter; conservatives the former, generally, and at least in theory.

    “….whereas the government’s limited role is to provide for security and stability so that communities can go about doing the work of communities.”

    The need for economic security is a far greater reality, and economic insecurity a far greater threat, than some perceived geopolitical rival. Economically secure families DO represent security and stability.

    “I get that the reason we’ve empowered the state is because all these other institutions are failing.”

    That might be one reason but it’s not the only reason. Our secular government is more reliable, has better resources and is generally free of an agenda. The government has the fewest strings attached, and therefore casts the widest net. For example, the Salvation Army condemns gay people, although I’m not sure if it refuses services to them. A stressed gay person might suffer in silence rather than approach the Salvation Army. The government is the most neutral provider in times of need. It is also the least hostile organization to approach for many people, compared to charities or churches.

    As a progressive, I prefer government safety net programs, because they are reliable, widely and consistently available and executed through the most neutral or agenda- and dogma-free entity.

  15. Amber Lapp says:

    Diane M, I think that an economic safety net for families probably does help families stay together for obvious reasons–because they are less stressed and less likely to argue about money and are probably a little bit happier in general. However, I just wanted to make the point that money/material resources can’t solve every problem we humans face, even if it can help with a lot of them.

  16. Diane M says:

    I agree, Amber Lapp. I think we need a both/and solution, not an either/or one. (i.e. marriage and jobs/education/etc.)

  17. Mark S: Your comments are being deleted because they are not even close to meeting our civility policy. Please rethink your entire approach to commenting on this blog; if you continue in your current vein, you’ll be banned from commenting.

  18. Tristian says:

    The research Wilcox points to doesn’t even address Krugman’s claim, which compares the situation in the US to that in Sweden. As the two studies cited look only at Sweden, Krugman’s claim could still very well be true: children born out of wed lock do better in Sweden than in the US (on average) because of the more generous safety net Sweden provides.

  19. David Blankenhorn says:

    My reading of Brad’s post is that he isn’t trying to prosecute a claim against the Swedish welfare state, the welfare state in general, Paul Krugman, the Democratic Party, or liberalism as a philosophy. It seems rather that he is trying to prosecute the claim that (in Sweden, in the US, in El Dorado) marriage tends to be a pro-child, pro-social institution. Whether the claim that “marriage matters” is true is one question; whether other things about Sweden, the welfare state, Krugman, etc., may also be true, are other questions.