“The President’s Marriage Agenda” is an important contribution to the decades-long discussion of the middle class. Until now, the discussion has been about wages and jobs. With this report, the authors introduce marriage and marriage-strengthening policies into the discussion. We now have the makings of an expanded agenda to strengthen and rebuild the middle class.
For the past thirty or so years, we have had a lively discussion about the decline in the size of the middle class. It has focused on economic conditions: falling wages among noncollege workers; the steady drop in secure union jobs; and the loss of defined benefit pensions; and the effects of globalization; deindustrialization; and technological innovation. Accordingly, the middle class agenda has advanced proposals to bring back well-paying jobs and to provide more education and job training opportunities for noncollege Americans.
So far, however, such efforts have not done enough to slow, much less reverse, the economic slide of workers in the noncollege ranks. This is discouraging but it is not a reason to stop trying. We have to keep at it. But it is also clear that the economic agenda, however necessary, is inadequate to address the problems of the middle class. To fully engage these problems, we have to take into account the changes in the intimate relationships of a growing share of noncollege America.
As the report makes clear, over recent decades, the middle class has been fracturing into two separate and economically unequal groups based not only on declining jobs and wages but also on sharply divergent reproductive and family formation strategies. The college-educated are following a traditional sequence in their family lives: they are earning four-year degrees; establishing themselves in jobs; getting married; and then having children. Once they have children, they are engaged in the intensive and prolonged nurture of their offspring.
The non-college educated – those with high school and perhaps additional post-secondary education – are increasingly departing from this sequence. They are struggling to find work and falling short. They are not doing much better in their search for love. Their intimate partnerships are short-term, mutually exploitative, and conflict-ridden. Men and women are pursuing separate reproductive strategies. Men get sex without strings. Women get babies without the fuss and muss of a man around the house. In the meanwhile, the children born of their unstable and insecure relationships begin life with disadvantages that are hard to overcome.
For all young people today, the pathway into a stable marriage is prolonged and arduous. It takes more time, discipline, and maturity than it once did. In negotiating that pathway, college plays an important role. The advantage of a four-year college degree is not just economic. It is social. College life provides an extended moratorium for young men and women who are sexually active but not yet ready for marriage or children or jobs. In my years living in a university town, I can attest to the fact that the average undergraduate is no more mature or disciplined than the average kid who works at 7-11 – maybe less so. But where the undergrad does have an advantage is that he can get drunk and hurl bottles at the police and he will get a slap on the wrist from Dean of Students. The kid at 7-11 may have to do time for a similar offense. (For him, it’s not just college partying. It’s called assault with a deadly weapon.) And while he’s in jail, he will lose his job.
Then, too, the coeducational experience is a kind of social curriculum. It puts men and women in the classroom together as peers; houses them in coed dorms; fosters friendships; encourages shared activities in both sports and studies; and punishes those who engage in discrimination on the basis of gender, race and sexual orientation. This system is hardly perfect. Colleges have their share of sexual assaults, date rapes, and gender violence. But in the main, this period of coeducational coexistence helps to establish norms of mutual respect that set expectations for future relationships and later marriage. Men and women learn to treat each other as equals. They consult each others’ desires. These lessons are harder to learn in the bars and clubs where many of the noncollege young hang out.