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03/31/2014 02:54 pm ET Updated May 30, 2014

Is the Marriage Gap Driving Inequality? David Blankenhorn Interviews Lawrence Mead

"...if you wanted to identify the single biggest threat to maintenance of a broad middle class society you would pick the absolute disintegration of family structure among 50-60 percent of what used to be blue collar America..."

In this episode of The Conversation, Institute for American Values President David Blankenhorn and New York University Professor Lawrence Mead examine together the goods of marriage as both public right and responsibility. Larry Mead applies his life-long work on the basic obligations of citizenship to the current debate on the marriage gap.

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Listen to the podcast (59:44) | Watch the video (1:35:19).

Larry Mead is one of America's foremost experts on poverty and welfare. He has taught politics to a generation of students at New York University, and his books and articles provided the theoretical basis for American welfare reform in the 1990s.

Mead begins by recapping the basic premise of his groundbreaking work: welfare to work. His recommendation to require entering the labor force in order to access social support is based in his understanding of what it means to be a citizen. Citizenship entails more than just rights and claims but includes responsibilities. He breaks down what he sees are the misconceptions about poverty and about solving it as well as how he sees a balance between government help and personal responsibility. He dubs himself a "big government conservative."

According to Mead, a given definition of poverty will inevitably shape how we see solving it. Based on ideas in his book Beyond Paternalism, Mead offers his definition of poverty as a break down in order, and then shares how his ideas became translated into national policy. They discuss the conditional and behavioral factors that create poverty and how participation in the labor force gives a person a moral claim to the rights of citizenship.
Mead goes on to share how both lack of work and lack of marriage seem to be equal contributors to poverty, however, mandating work is far more feasible than mandating marriage. He is willing to consider what we might do enforce that ideal, one that used to be enforced through social stigma. For example, when asked to offer words of advice for a new marriage conversation in 2013 he wrote:

How do we get more serious about marriage, to the point of resisting divorce and unwed pregnancy, as society used to do? How do we deal with the discomfort we feel at disapproving anti-marriage behaviors, when they have become so common?

Two steps seem essential. First, we must come to believe that the behavior we enforce is good for those who face the demand, not bad. We must think they can do it, and that they would benefit as a result. In welfare, most people believe that welfare mothers can work, and that they and their children gain if they do. Similarly with marriage, we must believe -- as society once did -- that marrying and staying married are possible and good. Currently, we are a lot less sure of that than we are about employment.

Second, we must honor the struggle to achieve marriage. Nothing society enforces is easy, or we would not need to enforce it. To "do the right thing" requires resisting temptation. To restore marriage requires that people who are married struggle to maintain their relationships when it seems difficult. It requires that the non-married avoid pregnancy when it is easier not to. To admit the struggle is different from tolerance. We must sympathize with those who have difficulty with the norm -- yet still expect compliance."

David and Larry discuss the ripple effect of the requirement to work in order to receive public assistance. They then tip toe into the minefield of applying social stigma to those who are not married by reflecting on a publicly funded campaign in New York City to address teen pregnancy. After looking at several of the ads tying unwed pregnancy to poverty, they discuss the general negative reactions to these ads as shaming, even though they reflect solid statistical research as well as the generally accepted "success sequence" espoused scholars like Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill. The "success sequence" charts a path to stay out of poverty: Graduate from high school, get a job, get married and then have kids.

David and Larry now establish that they are true "thrift nuts" who want to help people who are prepared to help themselves, and who seek to find a balance between charity and accountability. Mead grounds much of his current thought in his recent theological work looking at the question: What does it mean to help the needy?

Moving out of discussing the poverty class, David and Larry look at the growing marital gap in the middle class. Upscale America has come to reflect traditional values of educational attainment, financial saving, marriage, and family, while the remaining 70 percent of America slips out of this conventional lifestyle, one that is the most stable for raising children. These trends continue to persist in 2014 as Ron Haskins writes in a recent piece:

As we have seen, children born out of wedlock are far more likely to live in poverty, and they are far more likely to remain poor as adults. Children raised by two married parents, on the other hand, are not only more likely to have a stable financial situation at home, they also reap the benefits of having more parental investment in their development, better schools, and better neighborhoods. As these patterns reproduce themselves over generations, non-marital childbearing and the poverty that so often accompanies it help to create and sustain two societies within the same nation. Our changing, knowledge-based economy is growing less forgiving of a lack of education, making it hard for young people without college degrees or specialized skills to earn a decent living. And now the last and perhaps most important piece of the traditional American system for building equal opportunity -- the married-couple family -- is coming apart.

Finally, Mead reflects on the role that the same-sex marriage debate has played in raising key issues concerning the fracturing institution of marriage in America. He closes by wondering if an opportunity has not come for marriage to become one of the basic obligations of citizenship since our ability to form public relationships often stems from our ability to form them privately. Mead concludes the conversation with thinking honesty about what marriage is and how the current marital institution suffers from both a lack of standards and a lack of candid conversation about the genuine struggles of being in a long-term relationship.

Marriage has become a profound, if paradoxical, bell weather of our culture; for 21st century Americans it seems that marriage is at the same time both indispensable and disposable, acclaimed by all and unachievable by a majority. Discerning why this is so requires honest and patient conversation.

What do you think?

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