Why Marriage-Strengthening Belongs On the Middle Class Agenda

12.20.2012, 8:16 AM

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead is the Director of Civil Society Initiatives at the Institute for American Values.

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.


10 Responses to “Why Marriage-Strengthening Belongs On the Middle Class Agenda”

  1. La Lubu says:

    Barbara, thank you for highlighting the social advantages of college. That’s something that would not have occurred to me (as one of the non-college-educated). What has occurred to me is how the deindustrialization and the decline of labor unions have contributed to a certain disconnect between men and women in my SES. I’ve traveled all across my state (and into a couple of others) as a union electrician, and noticed a huge difference in how women were accepted in the trades in various Locals: in short, if the Local was in an area that had a manufacturing base, there was much greater acceptance of women. My theory: manufacturing has more workplace gender integration, which breaks down the barriers of “separate spheres”. Example: my maternal grandparents worked in the same factory; although sexism was still in full force (such that my grandfather was able to become a foreman and my grandmother was not)—the union provided opportunities and avenues for women, even then (my grandmother was a steward). So, unions aren’t just about the better pay and benefits (which are very important); they are also about solidarity with one’s fellow workers, leadership, communication and conflict resolution. Service industry jobs don’t just present a problem with low wages and no benefits as well as the lack of opportunities for workers (dead-end jobs), they are also a return to “separate spheres” which amplifies conflicts.

    For what it’s worth, women’s expectations of marriage have changed a lot more than men’s expectations in my SES. I don’t think the changed expectations are unreasonable; they’re based in the changed realities of day-to-day life. But economic strains have created a great deal of mutual resentment. Working class men lost status over the years; college-degreed professionals (other than schoolteachers) have not. Thanks for paying attention to the economics.

  2. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    “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.” This is hugely important.

  3. Diane M says:

    LaLubu – Could the greater acceptance of women workers in an area with a manufacturing base be because men with those jobs are more economically secure and therefore more accepting?

  4. La Lubu says:

    Well, I’m not discounting that as a factor, but I’ve heard so many men from areas with manufacturing backgrounds talk about growing up with working mothers and having worked alongside women and so—they take for granted that women can do the work. I came up in a Local where there wasn’t a whole lot of manufacturing (and what had been there basically died before I got in—so, most of my background is in commercial, institutional, and powerhouse work), so there was a metric ton of resistance to women coming in. Not just because we were “taking men’s jobs”, but because we had to run the gauntlet of proving ourselves repeatedly. In manufacturing areas, our grandmothers’ generation already did that.

    I mean….this is Illinois. Everybody’s Local has gone through hard times, but even through the hard times the jobsite culture of places with a manufacturing base is much different. (if you know anything about labor history, you could say it’s a “CIO” culture—more egalitarian, industrial unionism, even in the craft Locals…..rather than the hierarchical and more exclusive”AFL” culture…)

  5. I think what you said about what happens when you throw a bottle is terribly important (although I’d add that it’s based on race as well as class).

    I think of it as a question of, “how many second chances will you get?” Some of the people I knew at college have had many, many “second” chances over the years.

    To switch metaphors, you’re much less likely to strike out if you’re allowed ten strikes instead of just one.

    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.

    I think this is a bit exaggerated. We shouldn’t talk (or write) as if children born of single moms are doomed. Although they face worse odds than kids born to married parents (all else held equal), many children of single parents grow up well and eventually thrive.

    I’m all for efforts to increase the number of happy families with married parents. But I’d also like to see more done to study single-parent families whose kids do seem to have gotten what they need to survive and become happy adults. What makes those families different from those single-parent families whose kids turn out more troubled? Is there something that can be done on the policy level to make more single-parent families thrive?

  6. La Lubu says:

    I’m all for efforts to increase the number of happy families with married parents. But I’d also like to see more done to study single-parent families whose kids do seem to have gotten what they need to survive and become happy adults. What makes those families different from those single-parent families whose kids turn out more troubled? Is there something that can be done on the policy level to make more single-parent families thrive?

    THIS.

  7. [...] a comment on Barbara Defoe Whitehead’s post, I wrote: I’m all for efforts to increase the number of happy families with married parents. But [...]

  8. Diane M says:

    @Barry Deutsch – “I’m all for efforts to increase the number of happy families with married parents. But I’d also like to see more done to study single-parent families whose kids do seem to have gotten what they need to survive and become happy adults. What makes those families different from those single-parent families whose kids turn out more troubled? Is there something that can be done on the policy level to make more single-parent families thrive?”

    So this is what I know about the research on what is linked with children doing well in single-parent families. I think it points to both conservative and liberal policies making sense.

    More money. Rich children without fathers are more likely to have problems than rich children with two parents, but they aren’t that likely to drop out of school in the first place. So policies that might make sense include education and job training for parents, raising the minimum wage, job creation, and/or more alimony and child support.

    Parents who start out as married. Children of divorced parents are less likely to have problems than children of never married parents. This could be due to selection bias (people are less likely to marry someone who won’t be a reliable parent or unreliable parents might be less likely to get married). It might be due to money – people who go through the process of divorce might end up paying more child support or spousal support. (Spousal support gets people’s backs up, but it’s probably going to end up helping the child’s standard of living.) It might be due to the divorce process keeping men (on average) more involved in their children’s lives than when a couple just breaks up.

    The policy implication is that it makes sense to encourage marriage and prevent childbirth outside of marriage. Another possibility might be to declare anyone who is living together when they have a baby “common law married” and treat a break up the same way you would treat a divorce. This seems unfair to me and you’d need more research before you did something that might not work.

    Living in a neighborhood where most families are not single-parent families. This could be a reflection of money. It could be that with fewer single-parent families, the neighbors help out, although that has not been my experience. It might also be a question of peers.

    The policy implications of the last would be that it helps to have a society where most people are getting married and staying married. It might also make sense to look at economic integration as a way to help kids.

  9. Diane M says:

    @Barry Deutsch again – More ideas on what helps children of single parents:

    Parents who divorce in a friendly manner and don’t fight afterwards. This is very rare and I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect people who can’t get along to do this. However, anything that helps them to have a more friendly divorce and not fight in front of the kids would help the kids. So providing free mediators or requiring parents seeking a divorce to take a class might help. Maybe someone should look into testing post-divorce support programs for parents.

    I’ve never heard any research on this subject related to unmarried parents, but I would think the same principle would apply. So it might make sense to look at ways to get mediation services to unmarried parents when they break up and maybe even help them to write co-parenting agreements.

  10. Diane M says:

    @Barry Deutsch – So aside from the above factors (having divorced parents who get along and living in a neighborhood that is mostly two-parent families), I don’t know of a lot of studies showing what is helpful to children of single-parent families, aside from what is helpful to all children. The following are things that help kids in general:

    Resilience – Kids in really, truly awful situations (way beyond losing a father) who somehow make it through often have an adult somewhere who took an interest in them and helped them: grandmother, teacher, or neighbor.

    Another thing that builds resilience is not being over-praised or praised for things you haven’t really accomplished. And it is good to have some challenges that you can overcome, but not ones that are too big.

    So policies to promote resilience might include supporting extended families involvement with children or some kind of boys and girls clubs type thing. Also schools that help kids have medium sized challenges and real achievements.

    Parenting:

    Time with parents. Parents paying attention to kids and talking to them.

    Parents who specifically tell their children their values and talk to them about issues like not smoking.

    Parents who set rules without being dictatorial.

    Parents who are consistent in discipline.

    Families that eat dinner together on a regular basis.

    A secure attachment to your mother. (Most of the research is on mothers, but a secure attachment to a father or grandmother or aunt should work, too.)

    For the things parents can do, parent education could help all kids. For single parents, it might also make sense to talk about ways to help them spend more time with their children.

    For younger children, the Clinton welfare reforms changed things so that states could choose whether to let moms stay home with kids for the first five years or not. However, they also set a five year lifetime limit on emergency assistance; choosing to stay home would then be foolish.

    As you might guess, I would love to see reforms that allowed poor women to stay home with their children if they want to. For example, all states could allow women getting TANF to stay home with their children and could not count that time against the 60 month lifetime limit.

    For older children, it might help to have policies that allow single parents more flexible work schedules or ways to work from home, etc. so they can spend more time with their children.

    Peers – For teens, the behavior of your peer group has a lot to do with your behavior. So one possible policy idea would be to try to help families with less income live in wealthier neighborhoods.