“Marriage promotion” is a destructive cargo cult

I think I’ll basically be repeating what Matt Yglesias said yesterday, but maybe I can put things more plainly.

“Marriage promotion” as a means of address social problems at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder is a bad idea. It’s not a neutral idea, or a nice idea that probably won’t work. It’s inexcusably obtuse and may be outright destructive. It is quite literally a cargo cult.

A cargo cult is a particularly colorful way of mistaking cause for effect. Airplanes do not actually come to remote Pacific Islands because of rituals performed by soldiers at airports. But absent other information, to someone with no knowledge of the larger world, it might well look that way. So when the soldiers leave and the airplanes full of valuable stuff no longer come, it’s forgivable in its way that some islanders populated the abandoned tarmacs with wooden facsimile airplanes and tried to reenact the odd dances that used to precede the arrival of wonderful machines. It is forgivable, but it didn’t work. The actual causes of cargo service to remote Pacific Islands lay in hustle of industries vast oceans away and in the logistics of a bloody war, all of which were invisible to local spectators. Soldiers’ dances on the tarmac were an effect of the same causes, not an independent source of action. That is not to say those dances were irrelevant to the great bounty from the skies. An organized airport is part of the mechanism through which the deeper causes of cargo service have their effect, so something like those dances would always be correlated with cargo service. But even a perfectly equipped and organized airport will not cause airplanes sua sponte to deliver valuable goods to islanders. A mock facsimile even less so.

The case for marriage promotion begins with some perfectly real correlations. Across a variety of measures — household income, self-reported life satisfaction, childrearing outcomes — married couples seem to do better than pairs of singles (and much better than single parents), particularly in populations towards the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. So it is natural to imagine that, if somehow poor people could be persuaded to marry more, they too would enjoy those improvements in household income, life satisfaction, and childrearing. Let them eat wedding cake!

But neither wedding cake nor the marriages they celebrate cause observed “marriage premia” any more than dances on tarmacs caused airplanes to land on Melanesian islands. In fact, for the most part, the evidence we have suggests that marriage is an effect of other things that facilitate good social outcomes rather than a cause on its own. In particular, for poor women, the availability of suitable mates is a binding constraint on marriage behavior. People in actually observed marriages do well because they are the lucky ones to find scarce good mates, not because marriage would be a good thing for everyone else too. Marrying badly, that is marriage followed by subsequent divorce, increases the poverty rate among poor women compared to never marrying at all. Married biological parents who stay together may be good for child rearing, but kids of mothers who marry anyone other than their biological father do no better than children of mothers who never marry at all. As McLanahan and Sigle-Rushton put it (from the abstract):

[U]nmarried mothers and their partners are vastly different from married parents when it comes to age, education, health status and behaviour, employment, and wage rates. These differences translate into important differences in earnings capacities, which, in turn, translate into differences in poverty. Even assuming the same family structure and labour supply, our estimates suggest that much of the difference in poverty outcomes by family structure can be attributed to factors other than marital status. Our results also suggest that full employment is essential to lifting poor families — married or otherwise — out of poverty.

Let’s stop with the litany of citations for a minute and just think like humans. Marriage is a big deal. The stylized fact that the great preponderance of grown-ups with kids who seem economically and socially successful are married is known to everybody, rich and poor, black and white. Yes, the traditional family is not uncontested. There are, in our culture, valorizations of single-parenthood as statements of feminist independence, valorizations of male liberty and libertinism, aspirational valorizations of nontraditional families by until-recently-excluded gay people, etc. But, despite the outsized role played by Kurt on Glee, these alternative visions are numerically marginal, and probably especially marginal among the poor. Single motherhood is the alternative family structure that matters from a social welfare (rather than culture-war) perspective. The problem marriage promotion could solve, if it could solve any problem at all, would be to increase the well-being of the people who currently become single mothers and of their children.

But why do single women choose to become single mothers? It does not, in any numerically significant way, seem to have much to do with purposeful rebellion against traditional family norms. No, marriage of poor women seems constrained by the availability of promising mates. And why might that be?

Charles Murray recently wrote a wonderful, terrible, book called “Coming Apart“. The book is wonderful, because it identifies and very sharply observes the core social problem of our time, the Great Segregation (sorry Tyler), or more accurately, the Great Secession of the rich from the rest, and especially from the poor. The book is terrible, because it then analyzes the problems of the poor as though they come from nowhere, as though phenomena Murray characterizes as declines in industriousness, religiosity, and devotion to marriage among the poor have nothing to do with the evacuation of the rich into dream enclaves. There are obvious connections that Murray doesn’t make because, I think, he simply doesn’t wish to make them. Let’s make some. We were talking about marriage.

Murray does a wonderful job of describing the homogamy of our socioeconomic elites. The people who, at marriageable age, seem poised to succeed economically and socially, tend to marry one another. Johnnie doesn’t marry the girl next door, who might have been a plumber’s daughter while Daddy was a bank manager. Johnnie doesn’t marry anyone at all he met in high school, but holds out for someone who got into the same sort of selective college he got into. The children of the rich marry children of the rich, with notable allowances made for children of the nonrich who have accumulated credentials that signal a high likelihood of present or future affluence. Of course, love knows no boundaries.

As a matter of simple arithmetic, increasing homogamy among the elite and successful implies a reduced probability that a person who cannot lay claim to that benighted group will be able to “marry up”, as it were. Once upon a time, in the halcyon days that Murray contrasts to the present, the courting would not have been so crass. There were many fewer markers of social class and future affluence. The best and brightest were not so institutionally, geographically, and culturally segregated from the rest. (That is, within the community of white Americans. For black Americans, all of this is old hat.) The risk of “mismarrying”, for a male, was not so great, as he would be the primary breadwinner anyway, and her family, while perhaps poorer than his own, was unlikely to be in desperate straits. Men could choose whom they liked, in a personal, sexual, and romantic sense without great cost. Women from poor-ish backgrounds had a decent chance at landing a solid breadwinner, if not the next President. Very much like an insurance pool, a large and mixed pool of potential spouses renders marriage on average a pretty good deal for everyone. Really bad future husbands existed then as now, and then as now women were wise to do all they could to avoid marrying them. But the quality of a marriage is never revealed until well after you are in it. In a middle-class society, it was reasonable for a woman to guess that a nice guy she could fall in love with would be able to be a good husband and father too.

Flash-forward to the present. We now live in a socially and economically stratified society. By the time we marry, we can ascertain with reasonable confidence what kind of job, income, neighborhood, and friends a potential mate is likely to come with. The stakes are much higher than they used to be. Our lifestyle norms are based on two-earner households, so men as well as women need to think hard about the earning prospects of potential mates. Increasing economic dispersion — inequality — means that it is quite possible that a potential mate’s family faces circumstances vastly more difficult than ones own, if one is near the top of the distribution. It is unfashionable to say this in individualistic America, but it is as true now as it was for Romeo and Juliette that a marriage binds not only two people, but two families. If you have a good marriage, you will love your spouse. If you love your spouse and then her uninsured mother is diagnosed with cancer, those medical bills will to some perhaps large degree become your liability. More prosaically, if the inlaws can’t keep the heat on, do you wash your hands of it and let them shiver through the winter? In a very unequal society, the costs and risks of “marrying down” are large.

As with an insurance pool, too much knowledge can poison the marriage pool, and reduce aggregate welfare by preventing distributive arrangements that everyone would rationally prefer in the absence of information, but which become the subject of conflict when information is known in advance. Because the stakes are now very high and the information very solid, good marriage prospects (in a crass socioeconomic sense) hold out for other good marriage prospects. The pool that’s left over, once all the people capable of signaling their membership in the socioeconomic elite have been “creamed” away, may often be, objectively, a bad one. Marriage has a fat lower tail. When you marry, you risk physical abuse, you risk appropriation of your wealth and income, you risk mistreatment of the children you hope someday to have, you risk the Sartre-ish hell of being bound eternally to someone whose company is intolerable. More commonly, you risk forming a household that is unable to get along reasonably in an economic sense, causing conflicts and crises and miseries even among well-intentioned and decent people. It is quite rational to demand a lot of evidence that a potential mate sits well above the fat left tail, but the ex ante uncertainty is always high. When the right-hand side of the desirability distribution is truncated away, marriage may simply be a bad risk.

If you are at all libertarian, what the behavior of the poor tells you is that it is a bad risk. After all, marriage is not subject to a Bryan-Caplan-esque critique of politics, where people make bad choices in the voting booth that they would not make in the supermarket because they don’t own the costs of a bad vote. The consequences of a decision to marry or not to marry or who to marry are internalized very deeply by the people who make them. Humans, rich and poor, have strong incentives to try to make those choices well. Both common sense, social science, and revealed preference suggest that marriage rates among the poor have declined because the value of the contingent claim upon the future represented by the words “I do” has also declined within the affected population.

Promoting marriage among this population is not merely ineffective. It is at best ineffective. If the marriage-promoters persuade people to marry despite circumstances that render it likely they will marry poorly, the do-gooders will have done outright harm. Pacific Islanders no doubt bore some cost to build their wooden planes, lashed to a mistaken theory of causality. But lives were not destroyed. Overcoming peoples’ well-founded misgivings about the quality of potential mates with moral exhortations and clipboards of superficial social science might well destroy lives. It would create plenty of success stories for marriage promoters, sure, because even bad bets turn out well now and again. But it would create more tragedies than successes, tragedies that very likely would be blamed on personal deficiencies of the unhappy couple while the successes would be victories for marriage itself in some insane ideological version of the fundamental attribution error.

Fortunately, people aren’t stupid, so marriage promotion is more likely to be ineffective than devastating. But why go there at all? There is some evidence, for example, that where prevailing social norms prohibit premarital fun stuff and push towards early marriage, people do marry earlier and they marry poorly. Social norms matter, and even smart people are sometimes guided by them to do stupid things. Let’s not reinforce foolish norms.

None of this is to say marriage is bad! On the contrary, despite my lefty hippie enthusiasm for transgressive goat sex and stuff, I think in the context of the actually existing society, the prevalence of durable marriages is a reflection of social health. Marriage is part of how we organize a good life when a good life is on offer, just like airports with people guiding planes on the tarmac are part of how Pacific Islanders might organize trade for valuable cargo. But before the odd dances on the tarmac must come the production of goods and services for trade, or at least some kind of arrangement with the people in faraway places who control the airplanes. Before you get to smiling families, you have to create the material circumstances that render marriage on average a good deal. For poor women in particular, it very often is no longer a good deal.

But what about the children? One variant of marriage-centric social theory refrains from pushing marriage so hard, and simply asks that people delay childrearing until the marriage comes. (See e.g. Reihan Salam for some discussion.) If a woman is likely to find a good spouse at a reasonable age, then it might make sense to suggest she delay childbearing until the happy couple is stable and married, since kids reared by married biological parents seem to do better than other kids. Even that is subject to a causality concern: Perhaps childrearing is best performed by the kind of mother capable of finding a good mate, and at a time some unobservable factor renders her both ready to raise a child well and likely to take a husband. This would create a spurious correlation between the presence of biological fathers and good kid outcomes. We can’t rule that out, sure. But we have no reason to think it’s so, and lots of common sense reasons to think a biological father in a stable marriage improves outcomes by contributing to better parenting. So, I’d agree that women likely to find great marriage partners should by all means delay children until they have actually found one.

But women likely to find great marriage partners already do exactly that. Single motherhood is not a frequent occurrence among women who expect to marry happily and soon. The relevant question is whether we should discourage from having children women who reasonably expect they may not find a good spouse at all, at least not while they are in their youth. That is to say, should we tell women who have been segregated into the bad marriage market, who on average have lowish incomes and unruly neighbors and live near bad schools, that motherhood is just not for them, probably ever? We could bring back norms of shame surrounding single motherhood, or create other kinds of incentives to reduce the nonadoption birth rate of people statistically likely to raise difficult kids. It is possible.

I think it would be monstrous. I believe that, as a society, we should commit ourselves to creating circumstances in which the fundamentally human experience of parenthood is available to all, not barred from those we’ve left behind on our way to good schools and walkable neighborhoods. Women unlikely to marry who wish to have children by all means should. The shame is ours, not theirs. It belongs to those of us who call ourselves “elite”, who are so proud of our “achievements” that we walk away without a care from the majority of our fellow citizens and fellow humans, from people who in other circumstances, even in the not so distant past, would have been our friends and coworkers, lovers and spouses. It’s on us to join together what we have put asunder.

Update History:

  • 23-Jan-2014, 12:55 p.m. EEST: “invisible to local spectators” Thanks Noumenon!
  • 24-Jan-2014, 2:25 a.m. EEST: “caused airplanes landing to land on Melanesian islands”, fixed misspelling of Reihan Salam’s name.
  • 24-Jan-2014, 11:35 a.m. EEST: “as though phenomena he Murray characterizes”

57 Responses to ““Marriage promotion” is a destructive cargo cult”

  1. vbounded writes:

    Mr. Waldman: The book is terrible, because it then analyzes the problems of the poor as though they come from nowhere, as though phenomena he characterizes as declines in industriousness, religiosity, and devotion to marriage among the poor have nothing to do with the evacuation of the rich into dream enclaves. There are obvious connections that Murray doesn’t make because, I think, he simply doesn’t wish to make them. Let’s make some. We were talking about marriage.

    Why no blame for the free trade and immigration policies pushed by Larry Summers, Laura Tyson, &c, which undercut opportunities for middle class bargaining power for jobs and wages?

  2. Great, thought-provoking post. And, your conclusion is well-taken.

    I do have a couple of contrary points, though, that I’d like to hear you respond to.

    First, I wonder if you’re mixing up the causes of inequality a little bit here. There are many more single mothers than there used to be, but the poverty rate of unmarried men and women, both with and without children, has come down. ( http://idiosyncraticwhisk.blogspot.com/2013/11/family-structure-and-income-statistics.html ) You are ascribing single motherhood to a decline in the prospects of young women, but it seems as though when you adjust for the change in family structure, most, if not all, of the decline goes away.

    Second, do you see any relationship between these trends and federal public policies imposed on poor communities that disrupted housing patterns and family formation?

  3. Nicholas Weininger writes:

    This is a great post, not least because of how well it distinguishes normative from empirical considerations. I think it’s a little overconfident to use a single study in an epistemologically difficult field as definitive demonstration of the direction of causation, but it’s reasonable to say that the balance of the evidence points that way, the rationality assumption is the right default to assume, and the cargo cult metaphor is salient.

    Having said that, your normative analysis is terrible and illustrates the evil fruit that comes from interpersonal utility comparison and collectivism generally. First, even more so in marriage than in other areas, there is no such thing as “aggregate welfare” nor is there anything that “everyone would rationally prefer”. So the insurance pool argument that it would be better if people didn’t know the likely consequences of their marriage choices is just nonsense.

    Then, in decrying the consequences of assortative mating, you are in a sense arguing that everyone should be forced to be married to everyone else– and in particular, forced to support everyone else’s children. I sympathize with justifications for this that focus on the welfare of the children, who did not get to choose to whom they would be born. But to argue that parents have the right to bear children improvidently at the expense of the rest of us is to argue for a slavery of all to all. Parenthood, fundamentally human though it may be, is a choice; it is not necessary for any individual’s flourishing that they have children in the way that it is necessary that they have food or housing or medical care. And it’s a very expensive choice, and that makes it entirely reasonable to say that people who can’t afford the choice shouldn’t make it.

    Unfortunately, there are very few public policies that will encourage this without either hurting poor kids, who really are blameless hostages in this, or violating other important liberal norms like bodily autonomy. Free, readily available, easy-to-use birth control and comprehensive sex education go some way, but that’s probably the best we can do.

  4. Kevin writes:

    I like the phrase ‘the contingent claim upon the future represented by the words “I do”’ – makes me think about option values, vega and theta of marriage/divorce… There should be psychology studies where people report their happiness at regular intervals, so we can estimate the underlying processes, is marriage satisfaction a Levy process?

  5. While, I do agree with the basic thrust of the post, it ignores the role of household economies of scale. These are likely to be an especially relevant consideration for the poor. It is cheaper, sometimes considerably so, to live as couple than as a single person. For an individual raising a child, juggling the demands of childcare and earning an income can be a serious source of stres and financial fragility. A co-habiting partner can minimize or eliminate these contradicting demands on time without too much increase in expense. The wealthy can probbably afford to largely ignore these considerations when making their marriage plans, however, the poor probably cannot.

    I want to be careful not to overstate the case. These economies of scale do not necessarily require marriage per se. Any kind of co-habitation would be sufficent as long the co-habitants are willing to pool resources into shared tasks and employ some kind of division of labor, in other words the cohabitation must be cooperative. However, most adults seem to prefer to co-habit with romantic partners of some kind than with anyone else, so. Also, the points about ‘suitable partners’ made above still apply. However, the standard for what qualifies as suitable is a bit lower. Merely, having some income and being sufficiently reliable and sociable to allow for cooperation would be sufficient.

    I do not have any data to back it up, but my experience suggests that cohabitation of un-married adults has increased recently.

  6. Noumenon writes:

    “all of which were invisible to local spectators”

  7. reason writes:


  8. […] “Marriage promotion” is a destructive cargo cult Steve Waldman. Aiee, late to link to this. […]

  9. HarrisonF writes:

    “Women unlikely to marry who wish to have children by all means should.”


    You go through and tear down assumption after assumption behind the marriage promotion cult. But then you finish by leaving unchallenged the societal norms that take single, low-income women with little to no prospects of desirable mates and decide to take unchallenged the idea that they should have children.

    Let’s agree on the empirical situation: single motherhood is not desirable, at least based on any evidence from the real world.

    You turn this around and call on society to improve the outcomes of single motherhood.

    Why leave unchallenged the assumption that a low-income woman, who “obviously” will never “amount” to anything in life because of her status, income, and background, has therefor only the avenue of motherhood to produce and create value in society?

    What’s easier, changing the negative outcomes of single motherhood, or creating a society where people can find value in life beyond simply breeding?

    The former approach that you propose still shackles society to natalist assumptions about value. The latter approach could actually be more liberating.

  10. Morgan Warstler writes:

    I want to support, but…

    Can we agree, it is ok to model and condition safety net (a la GI?CYB) on two earner households?


    1. Do not promote marriage.
    2. Even promote baby making.
    3. But create aid system where we expect at least two earning parents (two single mothers etc) to be in one household.

  11. indentured serfant writes:

    I worked for 10 years for a law firm that assisted thousands of lower and lower middle class households with their legal problems. My expertise over the years became child support. I was uniquely situated to help these people because I come from a very lower middle class background and I can relate to them easier than other attorneys. In fact, my former nuclear family (mother, father, brothers & sisters) have all dropped out of the lower middle class and into the lower class SSI/Medicaid/SNAP territory, while I, though a lot of hard work and access to hundreds of thousands of dollars in nondischargeable federal student loans, got myself an education. In fact, in any given year, my wife and I together earn more money than my sisters, brothers and parent’s households combined! And my household is only in the top 10% of all households according to the IRS. This is pretty indicative of what’s happening in America, as the middle class disappears, its former members either go up the economic ladder or, in many cases, fall down the economic ladder. But I digress.

    I’ve worked with hundreds if not thousands of baby mommas and baby daddies (as they’re called in the vernacular). The overall themes I saw among them was the lack of planning and the overall cultural aspect to single parenthood.

    When I say lack of planning, I don’t mean “lack of family planning” I mean, lack of planning for the future in general, as if they just don’t care. A couple meets, at whatever young age, and pregnancy happens. Yeah they could use birth control or condoms, but they just don’t care. They wouldn’t use it even if you gave it to them. Because it’s just not what they do.

    Which brings me to my second point that it’s cultural. Most people in their peer group, in their social circles and family all do the same. The dads are generally absent, or involved minimally, they see the destructive nature of out-of-wedlock children in our society, but they don’t think rationally like those of us with fancy educations from private schools. It’s just what they do.

    The cause of this cultural situation is multi-faceted, and it cannot be blamed entirely on the ‘rich’ (although they share some blame) because there needs to be elements of self-responsibility.

    To sum it up, I had one client who has 7 children with 4 different women. He stopped by the office one day and asked a co-worker how I was doing. The co-worker told him that I was doing good and that my wife and I were trying to have another baby. He looked at the co-worker with amazement, and said, “Trying to have a baby?” It didn’t make sense. Babies just happened when you were with somebody and you had to deal with the consequences, no matter how awful they may appear to us upper middle and upper class rich people, it was ‘life’ for him.

  12. PeonInChief writes:

    Once upon a time we “shamed” those who had children out of wedlock, to use the old-fashioned phrase. But, no, we really didn’t shame all of those involved. Fathers weren’t shamed. They were men, and men did stuff like that. Women were shamed, and so were the children. Being born “illegitimate” was a stain. Then someone said, “hey, wait a minute. The kid didn’t do anything.” And when people realized that the shaming had the greatest impact on the children, they stopped caring whether the parents were married. I would ask anyone who wants to bring back the shame of illegitimacy how it would be done without having the greatest impact on the children.

    Would we, for instance, tell Tommy that he was welcome to come to the birthday party, but that his mother couldn’t come, even though all the other parents would be in attendance? Would we explain why?

  13. Dafydd writes:

    Absolutely right. But you fail to remark that when poor women do not marry, neither do poor men. And so poor men really ARE barred from real experience of parenthood, by the same forces women are barred from marriage.

    This is an absolute disaster.

    BTW, full employment really is the answer. Any man that can hold down a full time job is a reasonable bet for a poor woman. The vast majority of poor women would count themselves lucky.

  14. […] Interesting: […]

  15. Keating Willcox writes:

    In 1991, 68 percent of black children were born outside of marriage. When Moynihan wrote, in 1965, on the coming destruction of the black family, the out-of-wedlock birthrate was 25 percent among blacks…. Last year, some 80 percent of the black inner-city poor children born were born outside of a married family….when one factors in family structure it turns out that the absence of marriage, not race, is the major factor in explaining differing crime rates.3 The rise in crime, in other words, is tied to the disintegration of marriage

    Between 1950 and 1965, the proportion of people whose earnings put them below the poverty level, had decreased by more than 30%. The black poverty rate had been cut nearly in half between 1940 and 1960. In various skilled trades during the period of 1936-59, the incomes of blacks relative to whites had more than doubled. Further, the representation of blacks in professional and other high-level occupations grew more quickly during the five years preceding the launch of the War on Poverty than during the five years thereafter…..A mother generally received far more money from welfare if she was single rather than married. Once she took a husband, her benefits were instantly reduced by roughly 10 to 20 percent…The marriage penalties that are embedded in welfare programs can be particularly severe if a woman on public assistance weds a man who is employed in a low-paying job. As a FamilyScholars.org report puts it: “When a couple’s income nears the limits prescribed by Medicaid, a few extra dollars in income cause thousands of dollars in benefits to be lost. What all of this means is that the two most important routes out of poverty—marriage and work—are heavily taxed under the current U.S. system….the growth and increased liberalization of the “welfare complex” have eroded the traditional ethos of working-class communities that once held people who worked at low-wage jobs, and men who married the mothers of their children, in much higher esteem than unwed parents who became wards of the state….[M]any [beneficiaries] were beginning to view getting their own welfare grants as the next stage in their careers…. [I]t became apparent that some participants’ requests for separate grants and independent households were too often a sign of manipulation by boyfriends, in whose interest it was to have a girlfriend on welfare with an apartment of her own.” People are not stupid. If you can squeeze free money from the system, why not?

    Basic idea…if you tax something you reduce it. If you subsidize it, you get more of it.

    We don’t care if folks get married. All we want is for folks to get off welfare, and be productive. First solution, for unwed fathers, 80% child support or forced labor. Second solution, unwed mothers must do in house piece work 8 hours a day or lose all benefits. If a couple with children gets married, the two solutions go away. Problem solved.

  16. Israel Ramirez writes:

    All of this discussion is going on in the complete absence of any scientific evidence. We don’t know for sure why marriage or the availability of suitable spouses has become less common. Maybe its economic conditions as asserted but that is pure speculation.

    We also don’t know whether any intervention that increased marriage rates would have additional positive consequences.

    A thoughtful consideration of the social science literature would have least given us a better sense of what conclusions might be plausible.

  17. Keating Willcox writes:



    This is a man with a big paycheck, heart in the right place, but he can barely remember the names of his children. By the way, how much do you make. Antonio has a multi year contract of about $8 million a year. This has nothing to do with poverty. It is culture pure and simple.

    Women could care less about their children, since they have them with men who could care less about their children as well. The idea of a family working together and sacrificing for the good of the family has evaporated. We have stolen the soul of the family by our misguided benevolence.

  18. Keating Willcox writes:

    During the nine decades between the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1950s, the black family remained a strong, stable institution. Its cataclysmic destruction was subsequently set in motion by such policies as the anti-marriage incentives that are built into the welfare system have served only to exacerbate the problem. As George Mason University professor Walter E. Williams puts it: “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do. And that is to destroy the black family.” Hoover Institution Fellow Thomas Sowell concurs: “The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”

  19. stone writes:

    Keating Willcox@18, you might be interested in this:

    Basically it looks into the consequences of when the Eastern Band of Cherokee all got a dividend of about $9000 a year from reservation gambling profits. It was a flat dividend that went to all citizens irrespective of need or whether they deserved it or whatever. The finding was that it transformed the life outcomes of those people and actually saved the state a fortune due to less psychiatric problems and crime.
    I think that the answer might be to just give everyone (even Bill Gates) such a modest annual citizens’ dividend. That could help to empower everyone to sort their own lives out. It would avoid the whole issue that you bring up where poor people are made to feel that their labor is worthless because everything they earn gets deducted from their means tested benefits.

  20. indentured serfant writes:

    ” First solution, for unwed fathers, 80% child support or forced labor. Second solution, unwed mothers must do in house piece work 8 hours a day or lose all benefits. If a couple with children gets married, the two solutions go away. Problem solved.”

    This is a naive solution to a very complex and multi-facted problem.

    Race: It’s not just race, or income, because the cultural aspect of out of wedlock births crosses race and income lines. White and hispanic women also have increased rates of out of wedlock births than 30-40 years ago. Yes poorer and minorities have relatively out of wedlock births but it’s by no means exclusive.

    It’s become cultural, it’s OK and acceptable to have a child out of wedlock now. This was not OK 50 years ago. So have many other social aspects of family become acceptable in the last 50 years, such as interacial marriage and gay marriage, and in some time, probably bigamy will become acceptable again too. There are positive and negatives to each new social trend (Because that’s all they really are in the history of mankind, when you consider that early man had the ‘mens tent’ and the ‘womens tent’ and it really did take a village to raise the children collectively, because if everyone is sleeping with everyone and having babies, it’s impossible to know who anyone’s father is). We have to take each for what it is and the pluses and negatives that come from it.

  21. indentured serfant writes:

    The other issue here, the elephant in the room to speak, is who are we to say that out of wedlock births and the social welfare system is ‘wrong’ or undesirable? This unpins some moral philosophy that everyone must ‘work’ to live, and if you’re not ‘working’ then you have no worthwhile place in society. What’s wrong morally with a society that pays it’s unwed mothers a small stipend (Through benefits) to have children and reproduce? Why can’t we as a society say Hey, if we want to have a lot of single, unwed mothers having children and producing future tax payers, why not subsidize it and pay them benefits? If people want to live this way, who are we as society to say “that’s morally wrong”. There’s nothing wrong about it. Certain societies in the past allowed rich men to take multiple wives, and the unwed men were shipped off to war to conquer foreign lands. That’s what that society did and who are we to judge?

  22. indentured serfant writes:

    In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say that it’s almost racist or classist, or both, to argue that our young mothers producing children out of wedlock is a ‘problem’. Its only a problem for the wealthier people of society with most of the money who have to pay for it, but it’s obviously not a problem for entire demographics of society. To criticize single mothers and fathers who choose to have out of wedlock births is to criticize the way that another culture, usually comprised of people of a different color skin or income than those being criticized, reeks of looking down on other people, like ‘we’re better than you because we’re not poor and having children out of wedlock’. Just because they’re poorer than the general population doesn’t mean you have the right to criticize them and say “Don’t live the way you do because we don’t approve” and when you say that to an entire class of people of different color skin or income, it’s almost like bigoted, because who are we to judge how other people live?

  23. […] relationship between inequality and mobility (also, on the "single motherhood" issue, see here): […]

  24. […] fact, maybe it’s impossible. Maybe we shouldn’t even bother trying. Here is economist Steve Randy Waldman on his Interfluidity blog: ‘“Marriage promotion” as a means of address social problems at the lower end of the […]

  25. Roger writes:

    The fundamental mistake in this article is to treat a cultural trait as a given.

    People are not just born unqualified for marriage. They are raised or socialized this way. An important part of the socialization process is observing your parents in a succesful marriage. For males it includes seeing how to act responsibly from a male father figure. The breakdown of marriage is thus a self amplifying problem. We are producing generation after generation less likely to be socialized to know how to be a good parent or spouse.

    Stressing marriage and building institutions and mores which reinforce marriage and discourage raising kids without two loving parents is exactly what we need to begin slowly reversing this trend. This doesn’t imply marrying a worthless bum. It implies seeking out and finding a marriageable partner. This will produce more marriageable partners over time,even as some fail.

    I repeat, the fundamental mistake is to view cultural traits as fixed givens. In reality cultural traits are to a great extent complex and dynamic factors which can self amplify positively or negatively over time.

  26. Keating Willcox@18 You might also benefit from reading “Slavery by Another Name”. Despite what Williams and Sowell claim, the empirical evidence in this history of the post-Reconstruction South is that black males were systematically re-enslaved by punitive “don’t be black” laws, and leased to mines and mills for, in many cases, life. That’s not exactly a model for a stable black family.

  27. […] this criticism of marriage-cures-poverty as a cargo cult is fair enough, but about halfway through it just starts going too […]

  28. Bryan Willman writes:

    Let us presume that “marriage before sex and especially marriage before babies” ended up as a cultural norm as a result of some selection pressures. That is, societies that have some rule more or less like this will do better on the whole than societies that don’t.

    And then observe that SRW is pointing out the discussion is about women with very poor marriage prospects.

    One could argue that *such people should not have children* – not because of being married or not, but because of the preparation for the future(or lack thereof) that indentured serfant writes about.

    So in some sense, historically, marriage was crude and blunt proxy for “suitable to raise children” and removing that proxy while failing to replace it may not be a good thing. For the children. For the society.

    Or course, incarcerating about half of all black men at some point in their lives is clearly a sign of profound social misfunction. If all those men were educated and stable citizens, rather than paroles, the marriage market in their communities would be way way better. So much for the “war on drugs” and the “results” of the “war on poverty”… Both of which sometimes seem to function as a “war on poor or minority citizens”

  29. Charles Monneron writes:

    Is is “monstrous” to “tell women who have been segregated into the bad marriage market, who on average have lowish incomes and unruly neighbors and live near bad schools, that motherhood is just not for them, probably ever? ” No ! It is the best message that we can tell them. Demographic transition is achieved not when poor people reduce their number of children from 6 to 2, but when they go from 6 to 0. Europe and Asia are more advanced than the US in this regard.

    What is monstrous is to propagate a cultural message that it is OK to have kids anyway, who have great chances to be “segregated into the bad marriage market, on average have lowish incomes and unruly neighbors and live near bad schools”.

    Why are you so prone for this ? Are you fearing that your children will lack personal servants (preferable indentured as stated above in the comments) or cheap factory workers for the stuff they will consume ? This is the mentality of a plantation owner who treats his slaves like cattle. In an era where automation is increasingly removing the need for those workers (setting aside the moral aspect of exploiting then doing tasks that you wouldn’t want your children to do), it is downright counterproductive.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 21st century ends up favoring nations who have not encouraged high fertility and, far from having a old age burden – old people are getting healthier and more productive with increased capital – won’t have a restless younger demographic unable to work productively, requiring either increased social transfers or increased security costs to keep them at bay. Japan, Taiwan or Singapore may be looked at with envy rather than commiseration.

  30. Nick writes:

    May I suggest a single mothers source of poverty problem elimination? 1 precenters should marry only poor single mothers. If they do not, that means that their low morals prevent creation of a better more equal and healthy society. Single mothers issue is a truly problem of corrupt morals but of 1 percenters not single mothers.

  31. JKH writes:

    great post

    would have appreciated a sprinkling of mergers and acquisitions metaphors, but “contingent claim” almost makes up for that

  32. Lambeau79 writes:

    The idea of the marriage insurance pool which is poisoned by more knowledge is very thought-provoking, thank you.

    I trust you’re reliable on the “lefty hippie enthusiasm for transgressive goat sex and stuff”, but righty anti-feminists will also find much to like in your analysis. Stricter traditional gender roles made the marriage and childrearing insurance pool work better, they’d say, by -a- obscuring the measurement of women that now happens via advanced education and employment; -b- boosting (or putting a floor under or compressing) men’s income prospects, by protecting them from workplace competition by women; and -c- forcing more of the best labor of the best women into childrearing rather than unrelated market work. Less knowledge and less choice made for easier pairings: effective distributive arrangements that increased aggregate welfare.

  33. Terra Desolata writes:

    If the marriage-promoters persuade people to marry despite circumstances that render it likely they will marry poorly, the do-gooders will have done outright harm.

    The problem with this article is that this is a central premise, but it goes unproven. I did not note any citations establishing the claim that individuals from a given demographic will be “likely” to marry “poorly” (for some unknown definitely of “poorly”).

    Are people from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely than the base case to have unsuccessful marriages? Certainly, that is what the data suggests. But more likely than not to marry poorly – that is, across available outcomes weighed by probability, are they better off not marrying? I have seen no evidence suggesting that that is the case.

    The emphasis on marriage is frequently misunderstood – it is not some Socialist Republic of Romania mandate that all people shall be wed and shall reproduce. It is, rather a focus on certain scenarios that occur frequently in our society:

    – Married parents with children who are considering divorce. This is where the data is very clear: it demonstrates that, setting aside a minority of cases involving abuse, the children are better off with the parents staying together.

    – Unmarried parents with children who are considering marriage. The data here is not as strong, but there are still undeniable benefits to having two parents in the home, from pooling earnings to caring for the children. Divorce rates for parents who have children before marriage are higher than for parents who have children after marriage, but it should be pointed out that divorce simply reverts the situation back to the base case, of the parents being separate. As such, any significant level of positive outcomes would argue for taking a chance on marriage.

    – Unmarried couples who are considering having children prior to making a decision on marriage. Again, this is where the data is important: it clearly shows that this is a very bad decision. I should say that in my experience, the decision to have a children in a semi-committed relationship is, contrary to stereotype, a deliberate decision much of the time, not an accident. Specifically, young women often have children with an unmarried partner in the hopes that the child will secure the father’s affection and commitment. It doesn’t work that way, of course, and that’s an important message to send: having a child with a man you are not married to will not secure his affections and will not improve your situation in life, and is in many ways a very bad decision to make.

    – Married couples who are considering having children. The data on children raised within a marriage that is even reasonably stable is quite favorable, so married couples who are confident in their marriage should not hold off on having children simply because they fear unfavorable outcomes. There are other reasons to not have children, of course, but the fear that your child will end up joining a lost generation of juvenile delinquents should not be one of them; chances are, he or she won’t.

    – Subsidizing un-marriage. This was the key flaw of the welfare of old: it heavily subsidized single motherhood, by providing substantial benefits to single mothers that were far more generous than those available to single women or married women, with or without children. It was, in retrospect, an extraordinarily bad idea. We can debate the wisdom of the dole (current euphemism du jour: “basic income”) or guaranteeing employment (a much better approach in my view), but the decision to provide a large suite of benefits available primarily to unwed mothers was a very bad decision that we have paid a heavy price for.

  34. Jeff writes:

    But why do single women choose to become single mothers? It does not, in any numerically significant way, seem to have much to do with purposeful rebellion against traditional family norms. No, marriage of poor women seems constrained by the availability of promising mates.

    But just how constrained? Almost half of all children are born to single mothers these days. Are half the men in the U.S. “unpromising mates?” That seems a bit high, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider that the average man still earns more than the average woman. Your observation isn’t wrong, but you are substantially overstating it.

  35. […] • New Old Keynesianism (Crooked Timber) • “Marriage promotion” is a destructive cargo cult (Interfluidity) • How to Read A Book (Farnam […]

  36. KevinM writes:

    If you haven’t been able to build a successful life for yourself, and I’ll trust efforts have been made, what TF qualifies you to manage some poor kids life?

    I’m human too, and you can’t judge me. I’m successful my own way.

    Can you raise your kid without my wallet?

    Don’t give me that BS, you got a big house, it ain’t costing you nothing. You talk like that because you never been. I got a right to raise my kids just like you do.

    Sounds like I’m raising your kids, you’re just having them.

    -SLAP- You racist MF!

  37. Lambeau79 writes:

    Jeff@30, the earnings of the average man and average woman tell us almost nothing about the earnings of the marginal single man, available to the marginal single woman.

  38. […] (Steve Randy Waldman) See? I do post thing I think are perverse. But the “cargo cult” figure of speech was so arresting, and the whole idea so counterintuitive, that I just had to engage a budding curmudgeon a little, if only in my own mind. Now you, too, can have the same experience! […]

  39. You make one flaw in your post:

    >Increasing economic dispersion — inequality — means that it is quite possible that a potential mate’s family faces circumstances vastly more difficult than ones own…if the inlaws can’t keep the heat on, do you wash your hands of it

    You are conflating inequality (some people having more than others) with absolute poverty (people falling below an absolute minima). It’s not the same thing. Rising inequality != more people being unable to afford heat.

    If income inequality simply means me making $200k/year and my in-law making only $50k/year (as opposed to a lower inequality situation of me making $40k and him making $20k), I do wash my hands of it. (All numbers should be interpreted as real, not nominal quantities.)

  40. AhContraire writes:

    THE 1950’s AND EARLIER
    In the 1950 and earlier, people, both blacks and whites, rich and poor, didn’t have to lock their doors as crime was so low, and there was marriage and God in communities.

    Now, in 2013, there are dead bolt locks, bars on windows, car alarms, business alarms, business security cameras, home security cameras, city wide security cameras. A nation that is 16 TRILLION in debt with all sort of social programs for single women with children and all sorts of education programs for the poor and ghetto that have only produced TWO LOST generations of young black men who don’t even know who their daddy is, wear their pants on the ground and wear Hoodies all day long, even in 100 degree heat and even in their own home.

    You really don’t know what you are talking about as anyone can see what your no marriage society has already produced, the GHETTO where the Black women are enablers with kids from multiple fathers. And where the conversations between black women is how to get back at their many ex-boyfriend through, “Who will take care of your kids this weekend?” Places like New Orleans and Detroit have like a 95% unmarried rate for black mothers. The Black race in America will be at a standstill or less in population ratio by 2050 as many are Black-on-Black crime.

  41. […] and haven’t, make more people exchange till-death-do-us-parts. And should we even want to? Steve Waldman points out that poor women know better than upper-middle-class people yelling at them to get […]

  42. […] haven’t, been making more people exchange till-death-do-us-parts. And should we even want to? Steve Waldman points out that poor women know better than upper-middle-class people yelling at them to get […]

  43. […] haven’t, been making more people exchange till-death-do-us-parts. And should we even want to? Steve Waldman points out that poor women know better than upper-middle-class people yelling at them to get […]

  44. […] been creation some-more people sell till-death-do-us-parts. And should we even wish to? Steve Waldman points out that bad women know improved than upper-middle-class people yelling during them to get […]

  45. Mercury writes:

    This is rich: the social engineers who purposely made it cool to be a bastard (and aren’t wild about the results) are calling the pro-marriage crowd do-gooders cargo-cultists.

    If the government pays poor single mothers more than poor married mothers you end up with more poor single mothers. This has been the incentive structure since the Johnson administration and now we are where we are. The “availability of promising mates” thesis is a canard because those single-mothers-to-be obviously found those mates promising enough to select them to contribute half of their future child’s DNA. Plus, they all have the same rich uncle: Sam.

    All else being equal, raising kids as a single parent is a lot harder and resource intensive than raising kids as part of a two-parent unit. Madonna can pull it off because she is rich enough to outsource a lot of the labor, housing project denizens, not so much. More resources, better outcomes. Also, the self segregation of the elites is a an unintended consequence of creating a permanent class of government dependants (arguably a feature, not a bug as President Johnson crassly asserted).

    The people who brought you The Great Society now want women (Obama’s “Julia”) to essentially marry the government as nuns are brides of Christ. Europe, which is of course that much more “progressive” than the US in these matters, now has a (native especially) populace that isn’t much interested in marriage or reproduction and is subsequently shrinking away. But maybe that’s a feature and not a bug too.

  46. […] to the previous post, James Pethokoukis misreads the views of people like me. He […]

  47. […] “Marriage promotion” is a destructive cargo cult (excellent) How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer Will Kick Christie’s Ass Be proud, America. In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, a Reproductive Health-Care Crisis Goes From Bad to Worse The Loud Truth About Abortion Protesters: Justice Scalia calls the demonstrators “counselors” who are comforting women. That’s not what I found at one New Jersey clinic. (“…it was clear that Justice Scalia’s description of what was taking place outside abortion clinics was woefully incomplete. Was he wildly uniformed or intentionally creating a false narrative to support his own political beliefs?” OOH, ME, ME! I KNOW THE ANSWER!) We Already Have a Lower Minimum Wage for Teenagers The real extremists are American voters, not politicians (I took the test in the paper-pdf-and I’m pretty consistent) How Richard Sherman Became America’s Newest Thug War Put Boston on the Map (it’s a good exhibit) All I want for Christmas is an abortion Where We Fail On Rape And Sexual Assault In The Military: It is not that most men rape. It is that too many of us get a glance, have a hunch, hear a rumor, and do nothing. That is where we fail. Now, let’s do something You Will Respect My Authoritah! […]

  48. Paul L writes:

    Thank you for your post as always. I’m new to the subject, but I’m surprised/confused that you don’t seem to mention unintended pregnancies anywhere. For example:

    “The relevant question is whether we should discourage from having children women who reasonably expect they may not find a good spouse at all, at least not while they are in their youth.”

    Doesn’t the answer to this question depend on whether the pregnancies are intended; isn’t this an important part of the broader discussion? Would be keen to hear thoughts.

    I see here that unintended pregnancies are half of all pregnancies in the US, and 40% of those are unwanted (as opposed to mistimed), with the numbers higher among lower-income women.


  49. […] Steve Randy Waldman has argued that assortative mating—he calls it, more succinctly, homogamy—also helps explain the […]

  50. Mike writes:

    “It is quite literally a cargo cult.”

    This almost made me stop reading. It’s not literally a cargo cult. It’s figuratively or metaphorically one (at least in this author’s opinion).

  51. […] right now I wanted to highlight one of the arguments that inspired the column in the first place: This essay from Steve Randy Waldman (the brother, I believe, of the novelist Adelle Waldman, familiar to my readers from an earlier […]

  52. Alex writes:

    Also, if you want to think in terms of expected utility like a proper economicser, trying to make people stay together is just the last thing you want to do if you think there should be more marriages. The downside risk is, as SRW says, the possibility of being beaten, having your net worth appropriated, and spending the next 35 years in the company of…[enter egregious and probably libellous comparison]. The harder it is to get out, the greater the VAR weighting on “stuck in Sartresque hell with Mr Wrong/Mrs Hellish” is, and therefore the less likely you will be to get wed.

    Yes, this is the “firing costs are hiring costs!!!” argument; why d’yer ask? It is telling, though, that the same people who want your boss to be able to yell “I divorce you! I divorce you! I divorce you!” at any time also want to make it impossible to fire your husband.

    This also reminds me of the occasional person who points out that conservatives and libertarians alike always want to encourage people to take risks by increasing the downside tail on the outcomes distribution.

  53. […] Apart and the Right’s marriage-promotion agenda. Phantom cure (Yglesias). Obnoxious cargo cult (Waldman). Douthat fires back that social liberalism is class […]

  54. Arthur writes:
  55. Steve Sailer writes:

    A very good post.

    A few points:

    – Poor single mothers typically aren’t living alone, they are living with a succession of boyfriends who aren’t good marriage prospects, with all the increased chances for domestic abuse and mom’s new boyfriend taking an interest in her adolescent daughter that come along. A lot of these guys are bad marriage prospects by nature, but some of them are capable of upping their game if the right woman made a good offer on the marital marketplace: e.g., a woman without somebody else’s kid for him to take care of.

    – The government’s project to discourage teen pregnancy seems to be working. Teen pregnancy rates have fallen steadily. Young women have sort of started to get the message that their value on the marital marketplace is greatly hurt by having somebody else’s child for your new boyfriend to bring home the bacon for. It’s time to extend it to premarital child-bearing in general.

    – The problem with Charles Murray’s book is that it ignores the economic side of why lots of American guys are bad marriage prospects today compared to 1960: low tariffs, high immigration, strong unions, responsible corporate leaders who were stewards rather than pirates, etc. That economic regime was the all time champ at promoting marriage. But nobody is talking up those kind of economic policies other than Pat Buchanan.

  56. Steve Sailer writes:

    One little known development is that the Obama Years have seen a stabilization of the illegitimacy rate in contrast to the sharp rise during the Bush years: