Followup: Pro-family, pro-children, anti-“marriage promotion”
Responding to the previous post, James Pethokoukis misreads the views of people like me. He writes:
Folks who agree with [Waldman’s] view often advocate a hugely expanded government safety net — universal pre-K, one-year paid parental leave, a universal basic income among other programs — to do the work of transmitting social and intellectual capital that intact families no longer can.
Folks who are me do advocate for vastly expanded government benefits for families. I’d support universal pre-K, and I especially support a universal basic income. (Paid parental leave not so much, if the payer would be a prior employer.) But the purpose of these programs is not to “do the work…that intact families no longer can”. On the contrary, I support these programs because they would enable and assist the work that couples must do to stay together and in love and raise children well.
As I tried to emphasize in the previous piece (maybe the goat sex joke obscured it): There is no nonmarginal constituency in the United States advocating for alternatives to the two parent family as the core unit of childrearing. (Advocates of alternative forms of parenting by gay people might once have been an exception here, but the ascendancy of same-sex marriage has largely assimilated the gay community into the broad cultural norm.) While as a free society we should be open to alternative arrangements, my expectation is that in flourishing communities, traditional families will remain the norm. The quantitatively relevant challengers to the intact, two-parent household are divorced parents and single moms. Those households do not result from any decline in positive norms surrounding married life, though they may in part enabled by a relaxation of negative norms surrounding single parenthood and divorce. Americans do not, in large numbers, choose to become single or divorced parents when they have the option of raising children in loving, economically secure marriages. They become single parents because they want to be parents and the loving, economically secure marriage is not available. People who imagine that nefarious alternatives to married childrearing are being promoted and must be countered in the cultural sphere are simply misguided.
The effective way to support traditional families would be to increase the likelihood that a marriage chosen remains loving and economically secure. Matt Yglesias (who is much nicer than me) helpfully suggests this as a means of finding common ground:
[R]ather than being skeptical about this rhetoric [of marriage promotion], a more productive posture might be for liberals to see the family stability angle as a way of getting social conservatives more invested in helping poor people. The suite of things most likely to make for more stable working class families are basically better demand management, better schools, more wage subsidies, better transportation connections to jobs, and overall the kind of stuff that makes things better.
That’s a good idea! But promoting the social and material conditions in which people would likely form durable marriages is very different from nagging people for making poor choices that may not be poor choices, given circumstances on the ground. And it is very different from trying to narrow people’s options by bullying them into marriage with a return of shotgun weddings or restrictions on divorce. That would be the worst kind of cargo cult: One cannot conclude from correlations between voluntary unions and good outcomes that more-or-less coerced marriages would be awesome. But the coercion would carry obvious costs and risks, to people who aren’t pundits or think-tank fellows. Too often, marriage promotion is presented as a substitute rather than a complement to altering the material conditions that render people’s choices so difficult and outcomes so poor.
In a better world, social conservatives would have more confidence in the power of their own ideals. One doesn’t have to be cajoled or trapped into the good life. In the United States, people who have options — even irreligious urbanites with dissolute norms — freely choose marriage at high rates. Yes, Hollywood puts out a lot of prurient and violent movies. But the same industry produces scores of romantic comedies and sappy chick-flicks in which marriage epitomizes the happily-ever-after. Those films remain popular across all socioeconomic classes (if not across genders).
Even in social-conservative-nightmare-land, marriage-indifferent Scandinavia:
“Nowadays, it has become fashionable for the father to hand over the bride. This isn’t a Scandinavian custom, but is something that people have picked up from watching American TV programs,” according to Yvonne Hirdman, professor of history at Stockholms University. Another new imported trend is the practice of placing gifts on the table for guests at the wedding banquet. “That is another new custom that comes from America,” says Anna Lundgren, editor-in-chief of bridal magazine and internet site Bröllopsguiden.
Weddings are parties. They aren’t marriages. Nevertheless, the centrality of wedding fantasy in American cultural life reflects a powerful, durable aspiration. America really is exceptional in its attitude towards marriage.
There is every reason to believe that, if their options were better, many women who today become single moms would instead form traditional families. I know there is more to life and love than material wealth. But there is little more harmful to life and love than poverty and economic instability. Social conservatives are fond of pointing out that AFDC used to explicitly subsidize single motherhood, and that was obviously bad. (It was!) But present arrangements subsidize romantic cohabitation in preference to marriage in poorer, more precarious, communities. Household economies of scale turn into painful diseconomies when a partner neither brings in an income nor does much housework or childrearing. The option of kicking out an indigent partner is extremely valuable, especially for moms in communities where men are frequently out of work. Mothers are wise, not foolish, to retain that option. (The behavioral effects of being a male adult who brings nothing but a mouth to the dinner table ensure that exercise of this option will become emotionally justifiable, pretty fast.) Vigorous full employment, or a universal basic income, would eliminate the strong economic incentive for mothers to prefer cohabitation without commitment and make marriage rational where now it is not.
Conservatives often claim to have faith in America, in American exceptionalism. I wish they’d have a bit more faith in the institutions that they claim are valuable and in Americans who aren’t rich. Marriage “passes the market test” in America among people who could afford, in social and economic terms, to adopt more informal Scandinavian lifestyles. Rich liberals aren’t shamed, exhorted, counseled, bribed, or propagandized into marriage. They choose it. There are rational, remediable reasons why poorer Americans don’t make the same choice. I wish we would address those reasons rather than pretend the choices are mistakes or moral failures.