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Tera W. Hunter Headshot

Family Values: Not By Bread Alone

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As opponents to same-sex marriage make headlines, lost is the fact that the real threat to the institution of marriage isn't gender. It's economics.

Once, fathers-of-the-bride gave consent to prospective grooms eager to wed their daughters based on the young man's financial prospects. Today, parental influence over a daughter's marriage plans has changed; but the concern has not. Economic stability is still seen as a prerequisite for marriage, instability as a deterrent.

A woman today is reluctant to hitch her future to a man who cannot provide for himself, let alone take care of a family. A man does not see himself as good husband material until he has achieved steady work and good pay. For some, having children satisfies their desires; marriage -- finding the perfect soul-mate as financial partner -- seems further out of reach.

A recent Pew Research Center study reports only 51 percent of U. S. adults -- a record low number -- now married, compared 72 percent in 1960. Hidden beneath these rates is a growing class divide. Marriage is embraced by the affluent and losing clout among those on the socioeconomic ladder's lower rungs. Succinctly, the poorer you are the more likely you are to delay marriage.

Why this is, no one is certain. But the correlation is striking. Indeed, demographers as far back as Benjamin Franklin in the late 18th century have noted that marriage and economics are inextricably linked.

Economics also impacts rates of childbirth within or without wedlock. According to Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center, 53 percent of American women under 30 giving birth are unmarried.

It's a phenomenon not lost on political scientist Charles Murray. Best known for co-authoring The Bell Curve, which included such fallacious assertions as Blacks having inferior IQs that account for their societal problems, Murray is at it again.

In his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray has devised a similar template for poor and working-class whites. Increasing immorality, lower IQs, and self-destructive behavior are to blame for their condition. Depleted wallets, decades of mass layoffs, the erosion of the manufacturing sector and house foreclosures play no role -- nor should government.

History says otherwise. Not only can government intervention play a role in solving -- and, conversely, creating -- the problem; it has done so before.

At the beginning of the 20th century, marriage, for example, was nearly universal for adults in our still mostly agricultural society. In the 1940s marriage patterns began to diverge, mostly on account of race.

Marriage rates went up for whites; down for blacks. They have grown increasingly disparate ever since; not by coincidence.

What transformed America was the Selective Service Readjustment Act of 1944 -- the G.I. Bill. Between 1944 and 1971, $95 billion went to millions of veterans to buy homes, attend college, start businesses, find jobs -- to marry.

The G.I. Bill was race neutral, but local control of the benefits was not. Black veterans were discriminated against by banks that rejected their mortgages, real estate companies that stood in the way of home purchases, and colleges that denied them admission.

These were the very routes to economic mobility that, for whites, gave rise to the vast middle class -- and marriages. For African Americans trapped in poverty despite the economic boom, marriage rates declined.

White men found greater advantage in the post-1940s job market. Black men did not. White men found higher paying work in non-farm occupations and married earlier. Black men migrated from the agrarian South to the industrial North to find their opportunities still conscribed by race; they delayed marriage.

For each decade since 1940, black men experienced increases in permanent unemployment: 9.5 percent in 1940, 16.8 percent in 1950, and 22.3 percent in 1960, 25 percent in 1990, and 34 percent in 2000.

Unemployment among men has always correlated with low marriage rates. For the first time in American history, blacks were being kicked out of the labor market entirely; further ratcheting up racial and class inequities. Little wonder African Americans did not experience the marriage boom whites enjoyed in the postwar period.

Significantly, the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s and 70s were educational, social, and political -- not economic. The 1980s brought a new variation on an old theme of disfranchisement, and unjust incarceration emerged by way of the "war on drugs" and mandatory prison laws. This, despite government data showing young whites are more likely to participate in the drug trade than youth of color.

Today black and brown people are being incarcerated at unprecedented rates -- typically for non-violent crimes; often for life. More African Americans are caught in the criminal justice system (probation, parole, jail, or prison) than were enslaved in 1850 -- further depriving communities of men in their prime and depressing marriage rates.

The habit of analyzing American life by race has prevented us from understanding Black life as a bellwether for the larger society. This racial divide has masked what economics makes clear: marriage and family life are an economic transaction. We ignore the benefits of government subsidy to the marriages and families of multi-generations of whites and the destruction of generations of black families at our peril. History shows that family values cannot live by bread alone, but bread they do need.

Tera W. Hunter, a professor of history and African-American Studies at Princeton, is the author of "To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War." She is also a participant in The OpEd Project PublicVoices Fellowship at Princeton University.