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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.