Restoring Marriage Will Be Difficult

12.20.2012, 8:17 AM

Isabel Sawhill is co-director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at Brookings.

This report sounds an alarm about marriage trends in middle class America. It is full of important facts and citations to the literature. Indeed, I know of no better source for such information than theInstitute for American Values and the National Marriage Project. As the authors note, marriage is alive and well among the best educated but rapidly disappearing among those with less than a college degree. What we are seeing is alternative living arrangements that have spread from the poor, and especially poor blacks, to the rest of society. The consequences for children and for society have been far from benign.

Against this backdrop, the authors argue for a more muscular response including: ending marriage penalties in tax and benefit programs, providing help to less skilled men so that they can become better marriage partners, more investment in marriage and relationship education, and a more robust effort by civil society to restore a marriage culture.

While I am deeply sympathetic to most of this report’s conclusions and to the wake-up call it embodies, I have three reactions that I believe need to be part of this discussion.

First, I am conflicted. My right brain says that marriage is a good thing for all the reasons enumerated in the report. My left brain says that we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It may be possible to slow the decline in marriage but I am increasingly doubtful that it can be resurrected in its 20th century form. The interesting question is what form will the much greater diversity of living arrangements take in the future. I suspect marriage as we have known it is not coming back. A combination of greater affluence, more gender equality, and changes in attitudes are conspiring against a restoration.

Second, I am somewhat less optimistic than the authors about the ability of their policy agenda to make much of a difference. In part, this reflects my belief that the trends we are witnessing are deep seated and that the authors’ preferred policies, while perfectly sensible and probably helpful on the margins, are swimming against a tide that is too strong to be reversed. Moreover, the research on what such policies have accomplished to date is not very reassuring.

Third, like the authors, I am concerned about the consequences. However, I put greater faith in policies and messaging that encourage young adults to defer childbearing until they are ready to be parents — or to not become parents at all. If childless adults do not marry, whatever the consequences for them, it does not significantly harm others. The problem for single parents is not that they are single; it is that they are parents as well. Parenting is hard enough for married parents; it is even more difficult for those who must do it alone. I say this realizing that many single parents did not choose this role. But then I am reminded of the fact that 70 percent of pregnancies to single women under 30 are unintended. Something is wrong in an era when many effective forms of contraception are available and often subsidized, yet the vast majority of young adults are still not taking responsibility for the consequences of their sexual encounters. In addition, while the policy hurdles to successfully providing young adults with the motivation and the means to prevent unwanted pregnancies and births are high, the task seems to me to be less daunting than an effort to bring back marriage.

In sum, by all means let’s work to restore marriage as the best environment in which to raise children but at the same time let’s stop the epidemic of unplanned childbearing that creates unwed (or temporarily cohabiting) mothers in the first place.


9 Responses to “Restoring Marriage Will Be Difficult”

  1. La Lubu says:

    Re: the availability of contraception: the key word here is reliable, not “available”. Yes, condoms and spermicide are available at drugstores everywhere; those methods are significantly less reliable than the (to working class women) de-facto less accessible or even unaccessible methods of hormonal contraception, diaphragms or IUDs. Working class women do not get subsidized BC, even low-income working class women earn too much to qualify for a Medicaid card; they also usually work at jobs that have no health insurance or catastrophic-only insurance.

    An office visit to a physician is more expensive for a person without insurance; they don’t get the healthcare plan discount. It’s hard to get a gynecologist’s appointment without insurance. And sometimes….insurance plans cover everything except contraception (I have great insurance…..except for that. Hallelujah for the Affordable Care Act!).

    Let’s face it….the greatest difference between college-educated women and non-college-educated women when it comes to unplanned pregnancy is that the college-educated women access dirt-cheap to free effective BC from campus health service. They are also more likely to have partners that agree with, support and cooperate with preventing unplanned pregnancy.

  2. David Lapp says:

    Thank you for writing this. Regarding what your left brain tells you about whether we can put the genie back in the bottle, I suggest that one of the most important questions we should ask ourselves is, What do working class young adults want? Do they aspire to marriage? Do they aspire to cohabiting relationships? Are they cohabiting because they are making a lifestly choice, or for other, more troubling reasons?

    These are among the questions my wife and I have been asking of working class young adults in Ohio for the past two years. And like Judy Wallerstein reported in her Unexpected Legacy of Divorce book, the one almost universal sentiment expressed by working class young adults who experienced the fragmentation of their families growing up is this: I want to give my children the loving, intact family that I never had growing up; I want to have a better marriage than my parents had. Their cohabiting relationships are often plagued by mistrust.

    Also, you are doubtless aware of the survey data that shows that about 75-80 percent of high school seniors — regardless of class — say that marriage is either very important to them, or one of the most important things to them.

    So I think, “Can we put the genie back in the bottle?” is the wrong question to be asking. Given what we know about working class young adults’ aspirations for marriage, a better question to ask is, “How can we support the aspirations of young adults for a thriving family and marriage?”

  3. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    Any effort at social change is difficult, whether it’s getting people to drive more fuel efficient cars — or not drive at all — or to accept limits on what kinds of guns they can own.

    I find the tide of sexual passion to be a particularly daunting life force to confront with social policy. I am grateful for the existence of contraception and certainly support its wide availability. Isabel Sawhill is doubtful that we can bring back marriage, and while I share her worries, I am even more doubtful that young people can or even want to stem the tide of passion that thrillingly points to new life with reliable contraception *every single time* as required in order to avoid a pregnancy.

    It seems that we should have something more to say to young people in addition to “don’t get pregnant” or “wait” (and women who have waited too long, as they were repeatedly told to do, can testify to the risk and pain of that strategy). It seems that we could also tell them the truth that marriage can be pretty wonderful. It’s how you make the nest and, well, after a couple glasses of wine and a night of passion, at least you’ve got something in place for the baby : )

  4. The challenge is to support marriages, but the flip side involves reducing the number of fatherless families. An increasing number the younger generation believe that the morally acceptable for women to have children outside of marriage, so we are paddling upstream.
    The government itself provides a share of the financing for fatherless children, appearing to support the arrangement while not wish to do so at all. Some of the population are softhearted, some are hard nosed, and many of us are both. The softhearted believe we must support unmarried mothers and their children, as it is surely the right thing to do and we do not wish to see them go hungry. The hard-nosed believe that support for unmarried mothers is counterproductive, in that it softens the adverse consequences of fatherlessness and so encourages the arrangement. So far, we seem unable to reconcile the two.
    As Isabel contends, restoring marriage will be difficult.

  5. Diane M says:

    “Something is wrong in an era when many effective forms of contraception are available and often subsidized, yet the vast majority of young adults are still not taking responsibility for the consequences of their sexual encounters.”

    Do you have any data on this? I am constantly wondering if their are studies on what is going on? Are women unable to afford birth control? Are women and men not interested in using it? Are women half-thinking that it doesn’t matter if they get pregnant? What are the numbers?

    It would help to figure out useful policies if we could answer these questions.

  6. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    Hi Diane M–the website for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has a wealth of reports that respond to the kinds of questions you have.

  7. Diane M says:

    @Elizabeth – okay, but could anyone summarize some of the answers. And do they apply to the middle class mothers that are being discussed in the report? How do thing break down when you compare teen mothers to all mothers under 30?

  8. mythago says:

    1) Even assuming marriage had a uniform shape in the 20th century, why in the name of sugar cookies would you want to resurrect marriage in that form? Are we really nostalgic for the days of coverture?

    2) I am assuming these statistics about pregnancy refer to the US, in which case they are somewhat misleading; “under 30″ is a pretty large category, and ignores that (at least in the case of births resulting from unintended pregnancy) the number is extremely high for teenagers and drops greatly in older groups. [www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr055.pdf]

  9. Daniel Myers says:

    First off, excellent article. Two things I noted in the article and my reaction to them.

    Ms. Sawhill expresses doubts about the proposed solutions of ending marriage penalties in tax and benefit programs, providing help to less skilled men so that they can become better marriage partners, more investment in marriage and relationship education, and a more robust effort by civil society to restore a marriage culture. She makes reference to research showing the poor results of such policies. I apologize for not having any research on this, but but I have never really heard of any wide scale programs to do any of them, certainly not from the government. We have robust sex education in our schools from 4th grade on, but little relationship education for example.

    Second, the comment, “Something is wrong in an era when many effective forms of contraception are available and often subsidized, yet the vast majority of young adults are still not taking responsibility for the consequences of their sexual encounters.” I believe this is a Fox Butterfield moment by the author. Perhaps the wide availability and subsidizing of contraceptives is having EXACTLY the effect that the church and others warned about 60 years ago, namely that young adults are not taking responsibility for the consequences of their sexual encounters.