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.


16 Responses to “Followup: Pro-family, pro-children, anti-“marriage promotion””

  1. vbounded writes:

    Mr. Waldman: 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.

    why not wage rage subsidy? less fraud, waste, abuse and deadweight loss technocrats

  2. Nicholas Weininger writes:

    If you’re right about the causation here, we should see, across different cultural groups, geographices, and time periods, strong correlations between changes in employment rate and changes in marriage rate and stability among low-income populations over time; and the marriage changes should lag the employment changes. This seems like the sort of hypothesis an econometrician could test. Has it been tested? Honest curious question; I don’t know one way or the other.

  3. Peter K. writes:

    As usual, Mr. Waldman puts it well in his blog post. I do wonder about the sociology of marriage and from what I recall, young people are marrying much later than was the case in the past. Possible reasons are that they want to get secure jobs first and/or the high divorce rates of their parents’ generation.

    Also, the young are more supportive of gay marriage where marriage is considered a part of one’s human rights. The gains and progress of gay marriage is surprising as is the progress of legalization of marijuana. Imgaine being told in the 1990s that by 2014 gay marriage* and marijuana would be legal in many states and we’d have a black President? (*and the Supreme Court ruled favorably for the granting of federal benefits.) Or that the Federal Reserve Chairman would be a Chairwoman? And a Democrat?

    @2 I don’t know about marriage rates, but I believe birth rates are down since the financial crisis and great recession.

  4. Phil writes:

    I thought your first post was pretty clear, but insofar as a clarification was called for, this does the job well.

  5. Zach writes:
  6. Mercury writes:

    “There is no nonmarginal constituency in the United States advocating for alternatives to the two parent family as the core unit of childrearing.”

    Does The Democratic Party count? How about the President of the United States?

    “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.”

    At that point I believe the decision matrix is typically limited to “less bad” options. A reasonably stress-free and stable living environment is much more important for children than it is for 25 year olds. Absent a boatload of other resources, such an environment is easier to foster with two parents in the home than with one. That’s why mom and dad splitting up should really be the last resort and traditionally has been.

    In neither of these long-winded posts is there any consideration of various scenarios from the child’s perspective. In typical leftist, naval-gazing fashion it’s all about self-fulfillment, one’s own happiness and optimal romance (and of course, what can the government do to help?). For any number of reasons some people simply have more bad luck and/or make more bad choices than others but some point, if they have had kids, they need to realize that their best ROI is going to be doing what’s best for the kid(s) first and making the necessary sacrifices accordingly. Actually that’s true for people at all levels of society. It’s called personal responsibility which is also a strong, non-cargo cult marker for better life outcomes.

  7. vlade writes:


    I think Mercury in the post above raises some valid points, although I disagree with some of his/her conculsions. From a society’s perspective, first and foremost function of the family is raising children, and what should be looked upon then is what is a good environment to do so.
    Stability of domestic environment has been shown to be, by far, the most important part of raising children well. Kids from rich disfunctional families are (statistically) just as well disfunctional as kids from poor disfunctional ones. And let’s face it, there’s a plenty of rich disfunctional families too, in fact I’d be willing to bet there’s more divorces between more affluent than the poor.

    I agree with you that functional or disfunctional family does not depend on formal marriage – although you could argue, that not even so long ago, the finality and formality of the marriage meant that people took more pains to make sure their family wasn’t entirely disfunctional (sort of precommitment in the game theory). I can’t remember now where it was I read it recently, will have to try to find it, but parts of it included stuff like silent tolerance of (discreete) lovers which functioned as a safety valve and similar “safety” mechanisms (lots of them being society-enforced/encouraged). so that family was overall reasonably stable.

    I’m not advocating a marriage at all costs, and marrage as precondition to raising children (that’s why I’ve been using “families” instead of “marriages”). I’m pointing to a well established research that stress causes huge problems to children (especially chronic stress), and that disfunctional families tend to be one of the largest sources of that stress. I don’t believe that in its current form marriage (as it become more or less a formality) can/will act as the stabiliser, so proposing it as a stabiliser is failing to see how it changed. But claiming that marriage never played the role of the stabiliser is also ignoring huge part of the history.

    I don’t believe we can turn back the clock, and say “so make divorce impossible/harder” or something similar. If you do want stability, instead of marriage get the couple to do Gottman’s marital (call it something else) stability test (or an equivalent, although I believe this test is the best predictor we have so far), and if it looks not so rosy, get them some counseling (incidentally, both things that a (good) priest was in fact carrying out quite some time ago…)

    Related to the above is the fact that research shows that in any relationship (be it informal or married), more than 70% of the parents experienced a moderate to severe crisis in relationship when their first child was born. That’s not what the culture/Hollywood tells you, in fact, they do the opposite (the unremitting joy of having a kid… ).

  8. Mercury writes:

    OK, let’s put the whole marriage/cargo-cult thing aside for a moment.

    The inescapable reality is that technology/medicine (birth control especially), well-intentioned government assistance programs (welfare) and changing cultural norms have, for better and for worse, radically changed the incentive structure surrounding marriage and child rearing for most adults.

    It’s misleading to say that women on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder are constrained by the availability of promising mates when most of those potential mates (and by that I mean “males” since XX + XY = baby) are actually making pretty some rational decisions, perhaps together with the females in question, in terms of renting vs. owning the cow and maximizing cash flows from the government.

    Further, if you actually talk to black, inner-city, teenage moms I think you’ll find that many of them think affluent white chicks (in this context, society’s model females) are crazy given their propensity to wait until they’re 30 with a solid career underway before having kids. To a considerable extent I think they’re probably right.

    It sucks in some ways that Mother Nature has dealt us the cards she has but it remains an intractable reality that we can’t have it all and can’t have many things without trade-offs. Whether or not you subscribe to Larry Summers’ assessment of gender differences in human beings I suspect that few among us would want to legally or culturally restrict female potential to the norms of ~50 years ago. That said I don’t think it hurts to examine from time to time why it is that so many ~middle class families have two working parents (which is often a stressor for the child-rearing environment) – is it more of a “want” thing or a “need” thing? If it’s that latter it sort of begs the question as to how cost effective this supersize government thing is in our age of abundance and technological marvels – who is the servant of whom?

    Assuming that we’re not going to be putting much toothpaste back in the tube anytime soon or hacking female fertility much more than we already have, perhaps it’s worth re-examining the standard phases of life for adults who also become parents. Maybe it’s best for young, 20-somethings to have babies ASAP after school is completed (as our biology obviously intends) with the expectation/agreement that their parents (the kids’ grandparents who ideally will still be in their 40s) will do much of the heavy lifting for the next 10 or 15 years. This way, young parents can charge full steam ahead into their careers while their brains are still nimble without sacrificing so much for their kids. By the time they are in their 40s they could scale back or even quit their work to reciprocate for their grandkids.

    Just a thought experiment but it makes a certain amount of sense given the givens and paradoxically, the lower-income, inner-city dwellers have already figured this out to a large extent.

  9. vlade writes:

    @mercury – I like your proposal, and it has basis on things that were tested and tried (and worked) in history.

  10. Bryan Willman writes:

    I think there is far too much emphasis on “choice” implying a well worked out advance plan, and not nearly enough on “people doing things more or less on an impluse.”

    Serious numbers of people still get married because they think that is what they are supposed to do. Some number of teenage girls are getting pregnant more or less randomly.

    Some large part (though not all) of the “women do this for lack of a suitable husband” analysis is rational analysis applied to post-hoc to what is likely not planned or rational behavoir (even if the participants explain it that way when interviewed.)

    Does this mean that promoting (or trying to force) marriage among such individuals is a bad idea? Likely so. But so is fostering child birth by single teenagers (or even married teenagers.)

    Yes, various evolutionary and economic forces *explain* these patterns, but they do not necessarily inform how to *manage* them.

    Mercury’s scheme has the problem that it’s about impossible to get there from here….

  11. Dr Zen writes:

    So Mercury thinks we can solve some problem or other he’s identified by having young enough parents to raise our kids for us? Okaaaaaaaaaaay.

    Steve’s post is obviously correct but Republicans aren’t interested in actually improving conditions or keeping families together or any nonsense like that, so it’s just more spilling seed on stony ground, I’m afraid.

  12. Mercury writes:

    Young enough *grandparents* in this case. Pay attention.

    The point is, if you are concerned about “improving conditions or keeping families together”, then maybe after half a century of doing the opposite (and arriving at a 2012 out-of-wedlock birthrate for non-Hispanic blacks of 72.2%) you might want to consider *not* automatically giving more money to parents who choose not to live together with their kid(s).

    Exactly how many scars do you have on your hand as the result of touching a hot stove?

  13. Alex writes:

    The various people in this and the last thread who go on about “holding down a job” should perhaps reflect for a moment that their friends and allies were talking about “no-one who finishes high school, gets a job, and gets married can be poor in America” or like in 1998 at full employment and in 2006 at the peak of the boom and they’re saying just the same thing in a high unemployment economy. If the facts change, I change my mind…what do you do, Sir?

  14. my expectation is that in flourishing communities, traditional families will remain the norm.

    Why would you expect that when there are already a host of incentives to displace the traditional family and you yourself called for more in your previous post?

    Was Moynihan prescient with his observation or a horrid if apocryphal herald for modern so-cons?

  15. Justin Cidertrades writes:

    more divorces between more affluent than the poor.


    More severed amoung the affluent? More cracked amoung the disadvantaged? Indigent can’t afford the divorce? Can’t afford to operate two separate homes? A cracked home is more dangerous than a severed home. Love is a random emotion, but marriage is a legal contract, a contract necessary for the income of the divorce lawyer but merely an unnecessary contractual expense for the lovers thus shrinkage to their children’s inheritance.

    Don’t get married! Just buy a house for a woman that you dislike! There! You life is about to improve.

  16. asdf writes:

    I’m going to comment on both threads here.

    Rich liberals aren’t shamed, exhorted, counseled, bribed, or propagandized into marriage. They choose it.

    No, they don’t choose it. Never married rates are sky high for this group and fertility is extremely low. Liberals are mostly not marrying and not having kids. The few that do shack up just before the womb dries up have few kids, enough money to smooth out the rough stuff, and its not like women in their mid-30s or higher know they can get a better deal so they stick together.

    Far left liberals with high IQ clock in at a TFR of 0.63/woman. Lord knows what the married rate is, but I remember it being very low and you can find it yourself.

    So I think we need to dispense with the “smart liberals are doing just fine, its just that dumb poor people can’t handle marriage like us elites.” Smart liberals are largely doing what their secular philosophies tell them to do. Get in as much hedonism, status whoring, and other wordly bullshit as you can while you can. Marriage and children don’t fit into it most of the time. And when they do they take on the mercenary form you describe quite well in these posts. Spouse as another consumer item.

    Now on to the poor. The problem is not that they are so poor it puts to much pressure on people to remain married. This is the richest place in the richest time of all history, even for the poor. If people in the past could manage, people today can manage. So its a choice, its not being forced by material circumstances. What choice are people making? I believe they are making the choice to be selfish, secular, short-term, sex obsessed, and hedonistic. I believe they are like this because its the value liberals have pushed for a long time and the incentives they have produced through government. Even the economic effects on men are the result of liberal policies.

    Everyone knows there are plenty of good men to marry, and there would be even more if it was encouraged. Do you not know men in your social circle that would make good husbands, that are trying to find a wife, but can’t find one? I do, everyone I talk to does. So if women aren’t availing themselves of these men that’s a choice. They are choosing other values. Maybe its independence. Maybe its sexual excitement. Whatever it is, its more important then a stable family and raising their children properly. Should we be reinforcing these choices? Subsidizing them? Heck, I think its bad enough we aren’t doing more to foster better choices, the fact that we are actively supporting worse ones is appalling.

    I think you get a lot of cause and effect reversed here. Women are demanding men who are not good fathers as sexual partners/accidental sperm donors. They are getting what they demand. This is a demand issue, not a supply issue. If you want them to demand something different you need different cultural and economic incentives.