Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?

12.20.2012, 8:24 AM

June Carbone is Professor of Law at University of Missouri–Kansas City and

Naomi Cahn is Professor of Law at George Washington University.

For years, we have applauded the efforts of the annual State of Our Unions reports to focus on the growing class divide in family stability and to propose policies designed to improve the “state of our unions.” But, this year, as in past years, the report states that the decline of marriage “imperils the middle class” without fully exploring the ways in which the destruction of the economic foundation of the middle class undermines family stability more generally. As a result, while we approve of many of the Project’s proposed policies, we doubt that these policies, good or bad, can fully address the issue.  Instead, we need to place greater attention on the creation of good jobs, the relationship between employment stability and family health, and the societal responsibility to ensure that the next generation of children is not left behind. While the class-based decline in marriage is a symptom of growing inequality and economic privation, an exclusive focus on marriage cannot by itself restore family health.

Over the last thirty years, greater economic inequality has done something very unusual: it has shifted the cultural strategies at the top and the bottom of the economic order in different directions.   At the top, the dedication to stable two, parent families has come not just from a cultural commitment to marriage, but from the fact that the gendered wage gap for college graduates has increased.  As a result, high-earning men outnumber high-earning women to a greater degree today than in 1990, and all but the wealthiest men need high-income women to afford middle class life in the fastest growing and most expensive metropolitan areas. Today, executives no longer marry their secretaries; they marry fellow executives. And in these dual-earner families, the maid cleans the toilets while the parents trade-off homework supervision and Little League attendance.

At the bottom of the economic order, every scholar since Moynihan has documented the link between the disappearance of stable blue collar jobs and the decline of marriage. What receives less attention is that with the increase in the number of men at the top and the bottom of the economic order, there are fewer men in the middle. The women who work as secretaries and cashiers have a much harder time finding a man with a reliable job and increasingly distrust men who spend their earnings, help out less when they are laid off than when they are working, and respond to a request for child support with insistence on custody equal to half the child’s time.

To deal with the emerging class differences that underlie family change, therefore, will ultimately require dealing with the issue of economic inequality directly, the mismatch between marriageable men and marriageable women, and the role of family unfriendly workplaces in exacerbating family instability. Accordingly, we:

  1. Applaud the emphasis on reducing imprisonment and increasing apprenticeships, but believe that these efforts cannot be a substitute for increasing the number of stable jobs. It is time to recognize that a true pro-family agenda must emphasize job creation and promote counter-cyclical fiscal policies that target unemployment and employment pathways not just into the first job but also over the course of the life cycle. Employment instability may have just as pernicious an effect on family well-being as unemployment, and a society in which job growth comes primarily from small businesses needs to have a stronger social safety net that fills in the gaps between jobs, provides universal health care coverage, and facilitates retraining and job market re-entry.
  2. Agree with the efforts to end marriage penalties and increase financial assistance for children. The financial disincentives associated with marriage, however, come not only from third parties such as government, but from the obligations at the core of marriage. Marriage may make sense for breadwinners and dependent caretakers. It may succeed for interdependent dual-earners.  It is fraught for risk for individuals who are both the more reliable wage-earners and the primary caretakers. We would therefore supplement the efforts to increase marriage incentives by ending counterproductive child support enforcement efforts, which often discourage paternal involvement, and providing greater recognition for those who assume an unequal share of family obligations.
  3. Approve of efforts to increase education about intimate relationships, and favor supplementing these efforts with greater attention to early childhood development and parental education.  The most successful programs help couples adjust to new economic realities by discouraging early marriage, encouraging financial responsibility, promoting communication and mutual respect, recognizing that effective birth control is an important component of managing marital and non-marital relationships, and learning to spot the warning signs of domestic violence. In contrast, we find little evidence that after-the-marriage divorce prevention works.

We believe, however, that while some of these steps may be useful, family stability will not improve without greater economic security for families and greater support for children.


15 Responses to “Misdiagnosing the Symptom for the Disease?”

  1. I strongly agree with virtually all of this entry. Thanks very much for participating here.

    Applaud the emphasis on reducing imprisonment and increasing apprenticeships, but believe that these efforts cannot be a substitute for increasing the number of stable jobs.

    I agree that they are not a substitute, but I think they are complimentary policies. An increased number of young people (not only men) who have not been in prison, and have been through apprenticeships, will make it easier to successfully convince employers to hire more people from those areas. And more jobs in those areas will make apprenticeships, and avoiding the risk of prison, seem more attractive.

    We would therefore supplement the efforts to increase marriage incentives by ending counterproductive child support enforcement efforts, which often discourage paternal involvement, and providing greater recognition for those who assume an unequal share of family obligations.

    As I understand it, however, weak child support enforcement is correlated with higher rates of single motherhood. (There’s an obvious possible cause for this correlation: men who know they’ll have to pay child support are more likely to take steps to avoid pregnancy, or to cooperate with a woman’s desire to avoid pregnancy.)

    If we end child support enforcement, that might increase the rates of single motherhood.

    We believe, however, that while some of these steps may be useful, family stability will not improve without greater economic security for families and greater support for children.

    I very much agree. Unfortunately, I’m not sure where these new programs will come from. The USA’s manufacturing base is going away and will in all probability never return. Greater economic security for families, and increased support for children, would both cost money.

    I would happily see my taxes go up for those purposes. But politically, it seems unrealistic to think that these policies will be the norm anytime in the forseeable future. Our political culture is incapable of action, and Americans as a whole seem dedicated to a low level of taxation that’s not compatible with a high level of services.

    I agree with you about what should be done. But I don’t see much possibility of it being done.

  2. Diane M says:

    Thanks for the fascinating blog. I have many questions and hope you won’t mind my asking.

    So, this seems contradictory to me:

    “At the top, the dedication to stable two, parent families has come not just from a cultural commitment to marriage, but from the fact that the gendered wage gap for college graduates has increased. As a result, high-earning men outnumber high-earning women to a greater degree today than in 1990, and all but the wealthiest men need high-income women to afford middle class life in the fastest growing and most expensive metropolitan areas. Today, executives no longer marry their secretaries; they marry fellow executives.”

    How are the men marrying women who earn so much if they outnumber them?

    To what extent are the high-earning men outnumbering high-earning women because the women are taking time out from their careers or cutting back in some way to raise children?

    “and all but the wealthiest men need high-income women to afford middle class life in the fastest growing and most expensive metropolitan areas.”

    I am dubious about this and dislike the work “need” in this context. Also “middle class” if we are talking about couples with two high-income earners. It seems like a very privileged attitude about what families need. I also tend to dislike calling people who are at the top “middle class” because I think it’s a way to think of them as the norm.

  3. Diane M says:

    My biggest response, though, would be this:

    Yes, economic problems cause families to break down and discourage marriage in the first place. But the lack of two-parent families then causes economic problems for the children and the responsible parent* or parents.

    And yes again, creating jobs would help families and strengthen marriage. But although everyone in America agrees that we need better jobs it’s not an easy thing to fix the economy and we don’t have widespread agreement on how to do it. Wouldn’t it make sense in the meantime to look at some other ways we could help children and families right now?

    It’s not like people want to be divorced or raising children on their own. Most people want to find someone to love and stay partnered. What if there were ways to help them stay together through the hard times or to become better partners and parents?

    *I think I’ve found a new term for single mothers. :-)

  4. Diane M says:

    “It is fraught for risk for individuals who are both the more reliable wage-earners and the primary caretakers. We would therefore supplement the efforts to increase marriage incentives by ending counterproductive child support enforcement efforts, which often discourage paternal involvement, and providing greater recognition for those who assume an unequal share of family obligations.”

    I don’t get this. It makes sense to me that marriage would be risky if you are in effect a single parent anyhow. At that point, it might make more sense to figure out how to make the second parent able to do more.

    But what I really don’t get, probably because I don’t know much about child support, is why you would want to get rid of child support enforcement? How would that help the parent who is caring for the child?

    Also, how specifically would you give greater recognition of the person who is assuming an unequal share of the family responsibilities?

  5. Diane M says:

    Since there aren’t a lot of posters yet, I’m going to go ahead and post four responses. Hopefully then there will be more comments from someone else.

    “and a society in which job growth comes primarily from small businesses needs to have a stronger social safety net that fills in the gaps between jobs, provides universal health care coverage, and facilitates retraining and job market re-entry.”

    These would also be great policies for women. Mothers (outside of the top of the upper middle class) often take time off or cut back on their careers in significant ways. They could really use retraining and job market re-entry and a strong social safety net. Universal health care coverage would allow some mothers or fathers to take time off from work when their children are small.

    “In contrast, we find little evidence that after-the-marriage divorce prevention works.”

    I’m surprised by this. I would think there might be some programs that are ineffective, but some that work. I think there are some cites in the report and in another posting that suggest at least one program works.

    Your #3 seems to me to list good components of relationship education, but marriage is conspicuously absent. I think at some point it’s worth promoting the idea that marriage is good for kids.

  6. mythago says:

    Diane M., reducing child support is code for “punishing single mothers”. Withholding child support is meant to give unmarried women incentive not to have children (since they won’t be able to count on the support of the child’s father) and punishes women who get pregnant anyway. It also discourages divorce with the threat of poverty.

    I find it hard to credit an unsupported statement that executives ‘once married their secretaries’. They probably slept with their secretaries, harassment laws being a rather new thing; but there’s no reason to believe that men once fulfilled the Cinderella fantasy of dipping far below their socioeconomic class.

  7. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: I am dubious about this and dislike the work “need” in this context. Also “middle class” if we are talking about couples with two high-income earners. It seems like a very privileged attitude about what families need. I also tend to dislike calling people who are at the top “middle class” because I think it’s a way to think of them as the norm.

    Yes, exactly! This is exactly the same kind of nonsense that upper middle class people love to tell themselves, and other people, so as to justify paying low taxes, hanging on to their money and privileges, marrying within their class, and in general doing everything they can to maintain their status.

    Re: but there’s no reason to believe that men once fulfilled the Cinderella fantasy of dipping far below their socioeconomic class.

    I’m not aware of any sociological data on the matter, at least from North America, but men marrying women of a lower social class definitely has a long history- that fantasy didn’t come out of nowhere. Particularly in Latin America, which was always more open to racial and ethnic intermarriage than North America. There are good evolutionary reasons to expect men to generally end up marrying down more than the other way around- men generally select for looks and fertility, women select for status and security.

    Regardless of how much class mobility there was or wasn’t in the past, there’s certainly not enough today, and a big part of that is because upper middle class people like to marry and procreate within their own class. I think that’s a bad thing, personally.

  8. Diane M says:

    @Mythago – thanks for the laugh on the secretaries. I do think, though, that high-earning men used to marry women who weren’t high earners if you go back far enough; they didn’t have many high-earning women to marry. A lot more women were secretaries, so you might actually be getting an educated wife that way.

    The bloggers didn’t sound like they would be in favor of withholding child support from the other things they were saying. I’m not quite sure what they meant. I hope it’s not just letting dads off the hook and thinking that will make them more involved.

  9. La Lubu says:

    I am dubious about this and dislike the work “need” in this context. Also “middle class” if we are talking about couples with two high-income earners.

    Point of order here: can you define what you consider “high income earners”? I ask because you have implied on other threads that say, a carpenter and a teacher would be “high income earners” since their combined income would put them near the top of what was referenced on a link I provided in another thread as the “missing middle”. Can you please tell me either in dollar amounts, or preferably by job title (as dollar amounts vary by geographic location), what constitutes a “high earner”?

  10. mythago says:

    @Diane M, they probably didn’t marry ‘high earners’ as much in the sense that job discrimination against women was perfectly legal, so as you say, there were fewer women with high-income jobs who they might meet at school or at work. But Mr. Rich Executive was probably not looking to marry Miss Working-Class Secretary; he was looking to marry Miss Doesn’t Need A Job because her family has the kind of money his does, or Miss Getting Her MRS Degree who isn’t really expecting to use her degree in the workplace.

    Regarding child support, the authors are actually saying that we should let fathers off the hook from supporting their children because it’s better to let the kids do without than discourage Daddy from being around more often; but in the context of encouraging marriage, let’s be honest and acknowledge that this is punitive, not supportive.

  11. ki sarita says:

    We should certainly end anything that is counterproductive.
    But which child support enforcements do you consider counterproductive, and why?

  12. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – I’m referring to the blog, so whatever the authors think of as high-income earners. I was assuming that they were thinking of doctors, lawyers, executives, professors. Those are the people who are marrying each other and having lots of money right now. (see below)

    @mythago – Yes, you’re probably right that the women in the past would have been from the same class as them, even if they weren’t high earners.

    I am still trying to get my mind around the idea that someone would seriously suggest not making men pay child support on the theory that that would make them come around more often. That idea seems dubious at best, but even if the father felt nicer, the mother and children might be less welcoming!

    I’m still hoping they’ll clarify and that they mean something else by counterproductive child support enforcement.

    LaLubu – For clarification, I see a difference between having a high income as a family and being a high-income earner. So two medium-income earners could end up with as much or more money than a family with one high-income earner.

    Personally, I think if you’re above the 80th percentile for median family income ($100,000 in 2009),* you’re upper middle class, and if you’re above the 90th percentile ($138,000),* you’re rich. I think it’s fair to adjust for where you live, but you have to use the region you live in, not your neighborhood or county, since part of what you’re using your money for is the privilege to live in that neighborhood.

    *http://www.stateoftheusa.org/content/new-census-estimates-provide-snapshot.php

    Another thought on income – the 95th percentile in 2009 was $180,000. So if you have two doctors or lawyers or law professors married to each other, I could easily see a family ending up with an income above the 95th percentile. (But then they might believe the Washington Post article about how $250,000 doesn’t really go that far…)

  13. La Lubu says:

    I think it’s fair to adjust for where you live, but you have to use the region you live in, not your neighborhood or county, since part of what you’re using your money for is the privilege to live in that neighborhood.

    (I had to laugh at the way you phrased this; while I do feel greatly privileged to be a homeowner and to know that I will have some security for the future based on that….no one who drives through my neighborhood would think we—the people who live here—are particularly privileged. This is a high-poverty-school neighborhood, the kind that people go into all kinds of debt and default to get out of!)

    Glad you mentioned that—here’s a living wage calculator you can use to drill down what a living wage would be by county for different types and sizes of families (translation: it adds child care for single-parent families). It’s useful; I think many of the expenses are on point for families with children (with the exception of medical—seriously, you cannot get comprehensive health insurance coverage for two adults and one child for less than $400 per month! And Maude forbid anyone actually have a chronic health issue or require maintenance prescriptions!); it is inaccurate for my county as far as single, childless adults (you could not find rent in my city for as cheap as it states, even in a welfare motel).

    But (play with it for awhile! plug in some of the places you’ve lived!)…as you can see, it’s a pretty bare-bones existence. It doesn’t budget separately for utilities, telephone, clothing allowance, emergency expenses (say, car or furnace breakdown), and especially not any “frills” (like cable or this internet we’re all typing on!); you can see from that “other” column that one would have a hard time making utility payments from that, and if utilities are supposed to be included in the housing costs, then the housing costs are inaccurate for all households, not just the single adult with no kids.

    More importantly, what needs to be noted from this calculator is: very, very few people without a college degree would be able to make ends meet on what they are paid. The very basic bare-bones immediate needs, let alone savings for the future for when their body breaks down and they are no longer able to work (or get hired—age discrimination is very real for service-industry and/or manual labor jobs).

    So, the idea that a single-income family is going to be able to have a comfortable (reasonably frugal, but not ascetic) life while being able to set aside retirement savings, emergency savings, and maybe a college fund for their child or two is unlikely. There just aren’t enough jobs available that pay those kinds of wages, and (with few exceptions), the non-college-educated can’t access those wages (entering the fields of police, firefighters, postal workers or tradespeople is like a game of musical chairs—hundreds of people applying for each slot open).

  14. Diane M says:

    LaLubu – That’s a really cool living wage calculator! Very interesting.

    My comment was meant to refer to people who have objectively high incomes (in the top 10-22% of Americans) and yet say that they aren’t rich because they live in an expensive area. Their housing expense takes a big chunk of their budget, but of course, they are building an expensive asset in a good neighborhood. And, whatever they may think, they do not actually need to live there; other people survive elsewhere.

    There is a difference between living in the NY metropolitan area and living upstate, though. You have to live somewhere near your job. So it seems fair to me to talk about how in the NYC area you need more money than upstate and try to adjust for that. The problem is if you want to live in Scarsdale and say that you therefore aren’t really rich, you’re middle class.

    Anyhow, this is sort of going off on a tangent. The blog put things in a way that I didn’t like, but it wasn’t their main point.

    I’m still hoping they’ll answer a lot of my question above about what the specifics of their blog mean.

  15. Diane M says:

    @mythago and Barry Deutsch – from flitting around on the web, I think that in terms of child support they may be talking about policies related to TANF, food stamps, Medicaid, etc. Things like if you are getting Medicaid from the government for your child, you must participate in federal child support enforcement programs. Then if the father is found and made to pay for health insurance for his child, he might get to pay you less child support money. So you end up with less for your child.

    I believe the way federal child support enforcement programs were set up, any money goes to the state and the mom and kid get nothing more than before. I’m not sure how turning TANF back to the states and letting them set their own guidelines affected this; maybe not at all.

    Anyhow, I am still waiting to find out what the authors mean. I’d love to see a whole blog on what child support enforcement programs are negative, in their view.