But opinions haven’t always shaken down along the usual partisan lines. University of Maryland economics professor Melissa Kearney made the case for marriage to her fellow liberals in her widely discussed book
The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind. “This is still so wrenching to discuss,” wrote
Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, in a column that essentially agreed with Kearney’s point that liberals should be concerned about the collapse of the traditional family.
Why is the marriage conversation so challenging? Maybe because it touches on economic policy, racial history, the culture wars, the long-term effects of the feminist revolution and the intimate contours of everyday life. POLITICO Magazine wanted to explore all of those dynamics with a group of marriage experts, advocates and thinkers who had different perspectives and politics. So we invited them to a Zoom session to hash it out.
Matt Bruenig is a blogger and president of the left-leaning think tank People’s Policy Project. Stephanie Coontz is director of research and education for the Council on American Families and the author of several books about gender and the family, including
Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Kay Hymowitz is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and the author of
Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age. Brad Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and the author of the forthcoming book,
Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, due out in February. Deadric Williams is a professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who studies race and family structure.
They spent more than an hour in a conversation, moderated by contributing writer Joanna Weiss. They debated the real sources of these concerns about marriage, whether the institution itself has “magical” properties for raising children and if properly supported families of any variety can offer the same advantages.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joanna Weiss: I want to start with you, Stephanie, since you’re the marriage historian. Over the past couple of centuries, marriage has evolved from pretty purely an economic institution to a social institution, a cultural institution, a theoretical joining of soulmates with all that implies. How has it changed in the U.S. in the last 50 years, and in the last 10 years?
Stephanie Coontz: Marriage used to be the only game in town. You could not get access to legal rights without marriage. Most women could not support themselves outside of marriage. Most men could not work a full-time job and get their meals made and their house cleaned, and any children they had raised outside of marriage were not protected. [Harvard historian] Nancy Cott once made a really interesting analogy:
What we saw over the last 100 years is the disestablishment of marriage as an institution, the same way we saw the disestablishment of the Church of England.
Some of the decline in marriage is absolutely inevitable, completely irreversible. Some, however, is occurring because it’s harder and harder to build a marriage, and many marriages that people can enter don’t look like they’re going to deliver the goods and the solace that we expect.
Weiss: I’d like to hear each of you make the case for the value of marriage — if it does, in this moment, have inherent value. Let’s start with you, Brad.
Brad Wilcox: Marriage grounds and guides family life and gives direction and structure and normative guidance to adult couples who are trying to forge an intimate relationship with one another over the course of their lives.
Weiss: Who else wants to chime in?
Kay Hymowitz: I do. I think you need to keep in mind that marriage is a universal — that is, every society has had marriage, bar one, maybe two, rare exceptions. Why is that? There are a number of reasons, but one of them is the rearing of children. The collective human brain has basically come up with this one institution. It doesn’t look like the nuclear family everywhere. But there’s always some way that the family is defined and becomes part of the life script of young people.
Deadric Williams: There’s a two-prong issue for me personally as a scholar: first, countering the assumption that marriage is an inequality-reducing mechanism, and, second, dehistoricizing marriage as a universal. It doesn’t look that way for people who are racialized as Black in this country. There are variations on who can enter, and what are the returns of marriage across the population.
Weiss: Matt, I want to hear your case for marriage.
Matt Bruenig: I don’t know that I have prepared a case, exactly. There are sometimes very incomplete and, frankly, lazy arguments that people make about marriage, where they don’t distinguish between high-quality marriages and low-quality marriages, and that can generate a lot of mistaken policy conclusions. That’s what I’ve mostly been writing about with respect to Melissa Kearney’s book.
As far as my stance on marriage in general: We live in a pluralistic society. Let a thousand flowers bloom on different approaches to life.
Weiss: Brad, I gather you disagree. The subtitle of your upcoming book throws down a cultural gauntlet: Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families and Save Civilization. So what’s your response to Matt? Why shouldn’t a thousand flowers bloom?
Wilcox: I think this idea of embracing family diversity — what I think Matt is suggesting — is a very adult-centered, progressive take on things. There’s just no question that in the United States, at least, there is no comparison to marriage in delivering stability for kids and giving them maximal access to their parents’ attention and affections, discipline and money.
Bruenig: Some marriages can increase stability for children. Some marriages can reduce stability for children. It depends on the particular couple, and what problems they may or may not have. We all know people who are very unstable adults, who may be abusive, who may have drug issues, who may have consumption problems, vices of various sorts. Seventy-eight percent of kids are in cohabiting families. The real question from a policy perspective is: How many of those 22 percent of other kids would really be better off if their particular parents were married?
Weiss: Deadric, I see you nodding. I want to see what you have to say, and also bring in a little bit of policy. Kearney’s book seems to support a common conservative argument: that the Great Society and other anti-poverty programs created disincentives to marriage, and even liberals should be pushing harder for the opposite.
Williams: I think it’s a cruel jest to say that marriage has some type of power, rather than the individuals who make the marriage possible. There’s this idea that one person could be poor, meet someone else who is poor, and then once they say “I do,” all of a sudden, there’s some abracadabra-magic economic success, or child well-being success. We have created policies under the assumption that marriage has these benefits. But there is a big caveat in that statement. When you place the emphasis on marriage as an institution, it creates the illusion that marriage has inherent magical powers. And I have a hard time grappling with that.
Weiss: A lot of the writing I’ve seen lately about marriage, whether it’s describing disadvantaged people or elites, focuses on women who have trouble finding marriageable men.
And a lot of the advice people give about finding a partner gets to the heart of what we’re talking about — generalized arguments versus individual situations.
So: How picky should people be if they think marriage is of value? Stephanie, do you want to take that?
Coontz: Some people say that marriage has become a luxury good: It’s the capstone; it’s what you do when you’ve gotten everything in gear. I’ve come to think of marriage as analogous to a high-stakes real-estate deal, with well-being along with wealth — feelings as well as finances — on the line. It can contribute tremendous benefits if you have a substantial down payment to make, both in terms of your financial security and your personal maturity. And if you can keep up the emotional and financial maintenance fees that marriage nowadays requires when there are these other options we’ve talked about. So marriage is harder to get in and to stay in, and not everybody’s going to be able to do it.
And I totally agree with Matt: The overwhelming evidence from the psychologists that study these issues shows that bad marriages — unstable marriages — are often much worse for kids than stable single-person families. Now, Kearney will tell you that it’s because single-parent families can never make quite enough money, but my God, we spent
hundreds of millions of dollars promoting marriage and to null effect. Maybe we should spend it giving families the money they need to raise their children in secure ways.
Weiss: Brad and Kay, what do you say? What if you don’t have the down payment for a stable marriage?
Hymowitz: I’m going to speak up for marriage as a social institution and not for the individuals. Social institutions, when they’re working well and they’re designed properly, have the effect of molding individuals in ways that are often very positive.
The New York Times ran
a piece recently that got a lot of attention. It was called “
Why Aren’t More People Marrying? Ask Women What Dating Is Like.” It started with the story of a woman who was with a boyfriend for some time and who got pregnant, and then he disappeared. But then it says he had been having a drug problem recently, and he’d lost four jobs. And I’m thinking, “Why? Why would you be with a guy like that?” We have an institution that helps guys like that be more responsible. If that guy is growing up in a world where he’s not going to get access to a woman like he did because he’s a jerk, then he’s going have to change his behavior.
In other words, the institution shapes people. It molds people for a future. And I think that our current, more laissez-faire approach is leaving a lot of young people lost about how to think about their futures. It has been a disaster for boys, in particular, because they are basically being told it doesn’t matter whether a child has a father or not — and you, as you grow up, don’t really have to worry about being a father and a husband, because it’s all up in the air.
Wilcox: The empirical evidence is important to bring in here. Deadric was questioning this idea that there’s something magical about marriage per se as an institution. And yet we actually have pretty powerful evidence from [MIT economics professor] Jonathan Gruber talking about
the shift from fault-based divorce to no-fault divorce, and that shift was linked to some major negative effects on kids.
We have studies from
UVA Looking at how divorce is linked to bad outcomes for kids, even controlling for genetic factors. We have a
study in Minnesota looking at twin men and finding that the twins who got married earn 26 percent more. So I want to suggest that there actually is some institutional magic about marriage, and that when people inhabit this institution, they tend to have more stable lives. Men tend to work harder and smarter. And kids on average are more likely to benefit.
It’s not just marriage as an institution that matters. It’s how much you have a marriage mindset that matters as well.
I certainly agree that there are better and worse relationships. The problem, though, is that in this day and age, we’re seeing a lot of low-conflict divorces — more low-conflict divorces, by scholars’ estimation, than high-conflict divorces — and those tend to be the hardest for kids. Because the kids don’t quite understand why their parents are separating, and then they have to face the financial and social and emotional fallout that follows. So it’s those kinds of divorces that I think we should be trying to minimize going forward.
Williams: Marriage doesn’t just exist by happenstance. You need human beings to get married. That’s my point. Once those people go into that marriage, they’re bringing their own individual-level resources. That resource-rich union does the work; the marriage is just a placeholder that makes the couple a legal couple.
I’m never going to debate whether marriage itself has positive effects. I’m not discounting that. What I am discounting is placing the responsibility on an institution, and not the individuals, with certain sets of characteristics that makes happy and long-lasting marriages possible.
Bruenig: With a lot of the research, it’s just very difficult to isolate the effect of marriage in and of itself. If you were going to do it for real, you would somehow clone a couple, and you would have one of them divorce and one of them not. That’s not possible, right? These efforts are limited because you have a hard time getting all the information you would want to get to make the kind of controls you would want to make.
Even when you start with a question like, “Do you have a marriage mindset?” and you extrapolate from there, why does someone answer the way they answer? Are there other confounding things that might have caused that in their childhood? I know there are efforts to control, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to control for all the other factors that might go into that. So all that research is a little questionable.
Weiss: One of the factors we need to discuss is the change in women’s economic power and economic fortunes. Some writers have suggested that this new marriage-promotion talk is really just a smokescreen for wanting a world where women aren’t challenging the economic status of men. You know, get them back in the kitchen. Is that a fair argument? How has women’s empowerment changed the conversation?
Hymowitz: I think it’s changed it enormously, but I don’t know of anybody personally who is arguing for women to get back in the kitchen. The question is how to adapt to very changed norms, or really, how to adapt when there are no norms. That’s part of what is going on in a lot of relationships: You’re supposed to negotiate everything because there are no scripts anymore for wives or husbands.
And I think that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing this
breakdown between college-educated and less educated people, because college-educated people are going to be more communicative, more verbal. And you need those skills in a modern society where there are no rules and you’re making it up as you go along.
Wilcox: One of the things that I find in my new book is that, for women today, when it comes to marital quality, it’s not so much whether he makes X percent or she makes Y percent, but there is a relationship between his stable employment and her marital happiness, especially if there are kids in the household. Helping young men understand that being intentional about their education and their work — being more “on it”, to use more colloquial language — and not to be as laissez-faire about how they’re approaching their work in their 20s, would be helpful in creating a culture and an economy that’s more marriage-friendly.
Weiss: Stephanie, what do you think of that? How would you get men to be more marriage-ready?
Coontz: Well, one idea is to return to one of the three things that made the 1950s and 1960s probably the most married era in a thousand years. Programs like the New Deal and the Great Society provided a floor for wages. This was a period when every man in America, of all racial and ethnic groups, was earning more real wages every year. A young man could get a job, with or without an education, work his way up, buy a median-price home at 15 percent of his average income. That certainly helped marriage.
It was also a time when women had no alternatives outside of marriage, and there was a very repressive approach toward people who were single or gay or lesbian. I don’t think we want to do those two other things.
Williams: The idea of a marriageable male is problematic to me if we don’t talk about the conditions in which people live. The marriageable male hypothesis has been disproportionately geared toward Black men, when we know empirically in this country about Black men’s high rates of incarceration, the lack of returns to good employment and the returns to marriage itself. Even when people who are racialized as Black get married, they’re not getting the same returns as their married white counterparts.
Bruenig: It was interesting to see Stephanie and Brad on this point because they start from saying, “OK, if we want to increase the financial stake of young men, what do we do?” Brad focuses on giving them life advice and Stephanie focuses on changing the economic structure so that their economic position is objectively better.
And I think this is one of the problems conservatives have. They tend to be the ones worried about marriage and childbearing, but they’re not willing to make the labor market reforms that are necessary for that to happen. You could also use the welfare state to make things more stable, so that people don’t worry about marrying someone who could become a financial risk.
To riff on Stephanie’s point, one of the obvious things you can do for young workers is compress wage distribution. This is typically done through unionization. But conservatives are not willing to really make the labor market reforms that are necessary for that to happen.
Another way to create economic stability would be to just have universal public health insurance. In that case, if you marry a man and he loses his job, you don’t lose your health insurance. People might be more willing to marry someone who doesn’t earn a lot because you’re not really dependent on them for insurance. But a conservative will look at that and say, “Yes, but then you might not feel like you need to marry a man, because you could just get insurance through the state.”
You seem to get gestures towards economic stability, but always keeping the solutions narrow: to giving people individual advice about how to navigate the labor market. It is not necessarily bad advice, but it also is not really thoughtful about the system as a whole. If there are only so many good jobs out there, you can tell people the best way to go get them. But that doesn’t mean they will all go get them.
Weiss: Brad, how do you respond? Are any of Matt’s proposals useful for promoting marriage?
Wilcox: Well, I think there is an important conversation happening on the right, and there are voices, like
Oren Cass at American Compass, who are trying to figure out a more assertive role for the government in improving the labor market for ordinary Americans. I would agree with Matt that we can’t think about this just in cultural terms; we also need to discuss the structural context that shapes family life.
Weiss: These conversations about marriage are coming at a time when our definition of marriage has expanded. I’m in Massachusetts, and I remember very clearly when same-sex marriage became the law of the land. A lot of the arguments for marriage equality were about the value of marriage as an institution, for the individuals who wanted it so badly.
Coontz: One of the great things same-sex couples can teach opposite-sex couples is how to organize a marriage that doesn’t start with these particular gender stereotypes. I don’t agree with Kay that we have no scripts for a successful marriage today. I think we’re developing some very interesting scripts. Gender-equal sharing in the home and workplace seems to be a major, major benefit, and if we could improve men’s ability to accept that, I think we would also be able to add some stuff to marriage.
Bruenig: On that point, there’s
a lot of research suggesting that lesbian couples
produce the best children. So if you really put the children first, should we be promoting that? Obviously, you can’t make heterosexual women lesbian, but there are bisexuals. There are people in the middle there who could maybe be tilted one way or another. So, should we say, “If you’re on the fence…”
Weiss: That is a radical proposal.
Williams: The notion of marriage expansion is problematic to me because you still center marriage. My thing is, why can’t we center families? Families come in a variety of forms. To single out marriage, given the conditions that make marriage thrive, is often setting up people for disillusionment and failure. If the goal is marriage and people don’t have the necessary economic conditions, etc., to do that, then people want to get married and end up divorcing because the stuff that holds marriage together isn’t there.
Weiss: Let’s wrap this up by bringing it back to policy. Many suggestions have been raised in this conversation. I want to ask: If you could enact one policy to encourage marriage or help the people who are in marriage, what would you pick?
Coontz: I just don’t think I can do just one. I think that simultaneously, you have to give people more free choice and less free enterprise in their economic life, and the same thing in social life. We’ve got to be able to help families materially, but we also should recognize that materially won’t finish it off, so we’ve got to give the support systems of counseling, of child care, of preschool, so that people who make these choices can all end up with better kids than they would end up without them.
Hymowitz: I’m just going to say one thing: Build more housing.
Bruenig: I would like to socialize the costs of children in the same way that we do elderly people and disabled people. That’s a very easy thing to do with policy. Other countries have done it. The idea there is just reduce financial pressure, which can cause couples to split, and when you do have single-parent situations, you reduce the differences between those families, because when everyone’s chipping in for all the children, then it’s not as big of an issue.
Williams: Everything that Matt just said, I echo those, in tandem with a living wage.
Wilcox: I think we should take some lessons from the biggest federal agency in the U.S. government. We have a lot of evidence that tells us that Americans who have served in the military are much more likely to be married than their civilian counterparts; that the racial divide in the United States military is much smaller when it comes to marriage than it is in the general population. And the class divide in marriage is also much smaller in the U.S. military than it is elsewhere. We need to recognize there’s both a structural challenge facing families that Matt articulates, and a cultural one that people like Kay and I articulated. I think there are lessons we can learn from the U.S. military that could help us understand how to advance both structural and cultural assistance to families, to make marriage more appealing and more accessible to ordinary Americans.
Bruenig: I didn’t think Brad was going to promote having the government employ everyone.