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Family Values? Conservative Economics Have Shredded Marriage Rates

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A recent article in The Economist on the "sorry state of marriage in the United States" quoted Census data that show that, for the first time, married couples now make up less than half of all households. The article concludes:

Do not expect the Democratic Party, however, to make an issue of the marriage gap in next year's elections. Unmarried women voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. "You don't want to suggest to someone who isn't married and has children that they should be married," says [Isabel] Sawhill. "That is a denigration of their lifestyle."

Ms. Sawhill is right that Democrats will not denigrate those on the losing end of the economic changes remaking America. And Democrats shouldn't suggest that single mothers get married for the sake of having a ring on their fingers. Marriage doesn't solve the underlying problems.

Because the "sorry state of marriage" in the United States isn't the declining number of married couple households. Instead, the sad truth is that just like access to health care, stable employment, and higher education, access to marriage has become a class-based affair. The Economist correctly observes that marriage and the two-parent family has become a marker of income level. According to the National Marriage Project, a half century ago, marriage rates did not vary much by education, and college educated women were less likely to marry than those without college degrees. Today, the likelihood of marrying, staying married, and raising children within marriage correlates strongly with education. Indeed, for white college graduates the non-marital birth rate has stayed at 2%; for African American high school dropouts, it's 96%. In between is a steeply slanted line that links family form to education, income, and race.

The Republican Party has effectively exploited working class fears about family disintegration to peddle the message that these changes reflect elite disdain for traditional values. In their view, the primary way to encourage marriage is to criminalize abortion, discourage contraception, and bring back pregnancy as the punishment for sex (with the scarlet letter soon to follow). In response to the Obama administration's plans to eliminate the co-pay for contraception, Dana Perino of Fox News responded that she didn't see why women spending money on $5 frappuccinos couldn't spend $5 for a contraception co-pay -- with no clue that there might be women who can't afford $5 for coffee. The Republican plan is apparently to distribute Bibles and promote the Christian radio that blankets the airwaves with stories of screwed up men who regain their ability to make a go of family life only after Jesus saves them.

What the National Marriage Project indicates, however, is that those who show up at church on Sundays are the ones who are doing well economically and maritally. While church attendance has fallen overall since the 70s, it has fallen most dramatically for those at the losing end of the economic spectrum -- and those far less likely to marry. Today, men without college degrees earn less in real dollar terms than they did before Reagan was elected president. Thus marriage becomes an unaffordable luxury for many women because they would have to manage a husband's life as well has their own and that of their children. Even for men who have regular employment, employment stability has taken a hit. A half century ago, well educated and minimally educated men worked about the same number of hours a week with about the same level of job turnover. Today, employment stability and average hours correlate strongly with educational achievement. Working class men (think of construction workers) have much higher rates of unemployment and employment instability and recent studies show that employment instability is a major factor in divorce rates. Unemployed men help out less at home than employed men, and are far more likely to abuse alcohol, play video games in their spare time, or beat their wives. It's hardly surprising that working class women conclude that marriage is a luxury they cannot afford.

A big part of the solution for the problems of the family is jobs -- more and better jobs. We also need to rebuild a safety net that encourages family stability. Studies indicate that the greater the male income inequality in a region, the lower the female marriage rates. We have created a society that writes off a high percentage of men through chronic unemployment and high rates of imprisonment for minor offenses. In The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, authors Wilkinson and Pickett show that the higher the inequality in a society, the higher the rates of mental illness and substance abuse, particularly among males.

The creation of greater inequality, the shredding of the social safety net, and the increasing cost of higher education have much more do with the changing structure of the family than Hollywood mores or internet porn. It is time that the Democrats discovered family values as an issue -- and link those values to a campaign to rebuild community in America. Republicans, the people who successfully blocked taxing people to pay their fair share and spending what it takes to build an effective society, should be forced to look themselves in the mirror when it comes to the destruction of family stability. Marriage rates by themselves have a variety of meanings, but class-based increases in family instability have one overriding consequence: the creation of a less just society with diminished prospects for a large percentage of our children. What we really need to do is increase our investments in children, employment stability, and healthy communities and stop pretending that family structure is simply a matter of morals or will.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.