We need something other than marriage to measure the strength of a family. Relying on a simple status marker to indicate the seriousness of the relationship is a gross oversimplification of a much larger issue. The justifications are expected: married people are happier, richer, smarter, less violent, more reliable, and just all around better. And presumably whiter.
Marriage reports preach to the choir. They identify and confirm the beliefs of a group resistant to cultural change. Even in an era where the meaning of marriage itself may include gays and lesbians, proponents overlook the diverse ways that people can have families. Supporters of marriage cling to a singular idea of the legitimate family—any variation or deviation cannot exist. Under this analysis, there are no shared roads to happiness or stability: marriage succeeds and cohabitation bleeds.
The underlying hope of the State of Our Unions 2012 report is acculturation. If poor and minority populations embraced the stabilizing ideals of marriage, pathological cycles would be broken. Their children would perform better in schools. Their household income would increase. They would be more productive members of society. And they would be more self-reliant and less dependent on welfare.
The problem is getting them to see the good in marriage, and how it benefits not only themselves, but all of society. But the cultural difference is so great, the belief goes, that it will take nothing less than Presidential support to convince “Middle America” of the conclusive superiority of married life. Otherwise, the unmarried masses, left to their own natural desires, seek fulfillment only in temporary pleasures: entertainment, food, and sex.
The pervasive worry—or labored exasperation—with unmarried people is their perceived, categorical difference from married people. Unmarried people are poor, uneducated, short-sighted, and violent. They act before they think, and have a limited view of family planning that only includes birth control. Government assistance and social programs are part of their everyday, dependent lives. They are prone to gun violence, according to Mitt Romney. Their children are doomed to poverty, sexual abuse, and malnutrition, and were born only to receive more assistance. Fathers are a distant, abstract concept. They probably rent.
Married people, however, are economically stable, college-educated members of the middle class. They are employed. Their children are clean and obedient. They provide taxpayer dollars rather than take them. Stepford is not an offensive concept. Family planning entails a vision of a shared future severed only in death. They have a joint savings account, and they own their home. They are not gay.
These are stereotypes, of course, but any marriage report necessarily believes in them. Deviations from the marital norm of stability and the nonmarital norm of chaos are problematic. Discussions of violent husbands are absent, as are high-income cohabitants. Creative people with long hair and colorful pasts shed them once they approach the altar. Married people are never laid off, fired, or underpaid, and married men don’t drink, abandon, or molest their children. Rich people always marry; poor people never do.
In many ways, this is the Moynihan report dressed in new, slightly less racialized robes. Civilized readers observe the pathologies of the uncivilized other, which sparks an academic “tsk, tsk” for the barbaric underclass. It’s a familiar group approach to cultural decline, and the audience is made clear. “You might expect that the less education people have,” a footnote admits, “the more partnerships they would form and dissolve, and that African-Americans and Hispanics would have more partnerships than whites.” The foundation is laid: uneducated minorities are perceived to have more partners. Yet the study finds that “having multiple partnerships was not a minority group pattern.”
Who is the “you” in the “you might expect?” Presumably it’s not uneducated minorities. With this outlook, the married vs. unmarried “problem” isn’t going anywhere.