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.