We can’t build our social system around marriage anymore

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

In 1996 the Hoover Institution published a symposium titled “Can Government Save the Family? A who’s-who list of culture warriors—including Dan Quayle, James Dobson, John Engler, John Ashcroft, and David Blankenhorn—were asked, “What can government do, if anything, to make sure that the overwhelming majority of American children grow up with a mother and father?”

There wasn’t much disagreement on the panel: End welfare payments for single mothers, stop no-fault divorce, remove tax penalties for marriage, and fix “the culture.” From this list the only victory they got was ending welfare as we knew it, which increased the suffering of single mothers and their children but didn’t affect the trajectory of marriage and single motherhood.

So the collapse of marriage continues apace. Since 1980, for every state in every decade the percentage of women who are married has fallen (except Utah in the 1990s):

Source: Census data from IPUMS

Every state, every decade (except Utah in the 1990s): Red states (last four presidential elections Republican) to blue (last four Democrat), and in between (light blue, purple, light red), makes no difference.


But the “marriage movement” lives on. In fact, their message has changed remarkably little. In that 1996 symposium, Dan Quayle wrote:

We also desperately need help from nongovernment institutions like the media and the entertainment community. They have a tremendous influence on our culture and they should join in when it comes to strengthening families.

Sixteen years later, in the 2012 “State of Our Unions” report, the National Marriage Project included a 10-point list of familiar demands, including this point #8:

Our nation’s leaders, including the president, must engage Hollywood in a conversation about popular culture ideas about marriage and family formation, including constructive critiques and positive ideas for changes in media depictions of marriage and fatherhood.

So little reflection on such a bad track record—it’s enough to make you think that increasing marriage isn’t the main goal of the movement.

Plan for the Future

So what is the future of marriage? Advocates like to talk about turning it around, bringing back a “marriage culture.” But is there a precedent for this, or a reason to expect it to happen? Not that I can see. In fact, the decline of marriage is nearly universal. A check of United Nations statistics on marriage trends shows that 87 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with marriage rates that have fallen since the 1980s.

Here is the trend in the marriage rate since 1940, with some possible scenarios to 2040.

Source: 1940-19601970-2011

Notice the decline has actually accelerated since 1990. Something has to give. The marriage movement folks say they want a rebound. With even the most optimistic twist imaginable (and a Kanye wedding) could it get back to 2000 levels by 2040? That would make headlines, but the institution would still be less popular than it was during that dire 1996 symposium.

If we just keep going on the same path (the red line), marriage will hit zero at around 2042. Some trends are easy to predict by extrapolation (like next year’sdecline in the name Mary). But major demographic trends usually don’t just smash into 0 or 100 percent, so I don’t expect that.

The more realistic future is some kind of taper. We know, for example, that decline of marriage has slowed considerably for college graduates, so they’re helping keep it alive—but that’s still only 35 percent of women in their 30s, not enough to turn the whole ship around.

So Live With It

So rather than try to redirect the ship of marriage, we have to do what we already know we have to do: reduce the disadvantages accruing to those who aren’t married—or whose parents aren’t married. If we take the longer view we know this is the right approach: In the past two centuries we’ve largely replaced such family functions as food production, healthcare, education, and elder care with a combination of state and market interventions. As a result—even though the results are, to put it mildly, uneven—our collective wellbeing has improved rather than diminished even though families have lost much of their hold on modern life.

If the new book by sociologist Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson is to be believed, there is good news for the floundering marriage movement in this approach: Policies to improve the security of poor people and their children also tend to improve the stability of their relationships.

To any clear-eyed observer it’s obvious that we can’t count on marriage anymore—we can’t build our social welfare system around the assumption that everyone does or should get married if they or their children want to be cared for. That’s what it means when pensions are based on spouse’s earnings, employers don’t provide sick leave or family leave, and when high-quality preschool is unaffordable for most people. So let marriage be truly voluntary, and maybe more people will even end up married. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

32 thoughts on “We can’t build our social system around marriage anymore

  1. “Policies to improve the security of poor people and their children also tend to improve the stability of their relationships.”
    Gosh, who would have thought that…


  2. Phil:
    Question for you: Do you take issue with ending no-fault divorce? And would you be against legal methods to make marriage less risky, such as mandatory pre-nuptial agreements or default dual-parenting in case of a divorce?



    1. I’m not a legal expert, but my impression is those changes wouldn’t do anything. No-fault divorce was pretty well the de facto standard before the laws were changed, so it’s hard to see how changing it back would do anything. As for prenups, etc., I would prefer to make parents legally responsible for their children regardless of their marital state. (Where covenant laws are in place, I believe, they have had no effect on anything.)


      1. Phil (if you prefer Phillip or Professor Cohen please let me know):

        Thanks for your thoughts above. It is my understanding that pre no-fault divorce, the US divorce rate hovered around 20% for 150 years, roughly before no-fault divorce. Then, after the laws were passed, divorce rate shot up to 50%, then back down to 40% where it has stabilized since. Now, I can see a number of couples pre-1960 living separately without a divorce, but I really doubt that a huge proportion of the population lived that way. The fundamental economics of it alone would not work, let alone the legal issues and social stigma surrounding it.

        Isn’t the current legal regime requiring both parents to be legally responsible? Yes, a lot of Dad’s do not pay child support, but that is more of a technical issue in creating systems of collection than anything else.

        And finally, regarding prenups. It is my understanding that prenups are common practice for countries surrounding the Mediterranean and in Continental Europe, but much less common in Northern Europe. The former has a lower divorce rate than the later. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that part of the lower divorce rate in the former countries could easily be due to the sobering nature of getting a pre-nup.

        And if the pre-nup reduces the costs associated with divorce, that in of itself would make it a worthwhile exercise.


  3. Doesn’t the rise in number of states and nations with marriage equality change the outlook? More people can now get married—in 12 U.S. states and at least 14 countries. That should increase the overall number and percentage of married people, even if some of them go on to divorce later. Or am I missing something in your analysis?


  4. Gosta Esping
    June 10, 2013
    This has turned into a rather odd debate. It is so well-established that couple instability and divorce is primarily driven by the quality of partnerships. I cannot imagine how legal reforms can influence this. In any case under many different legal and tax frameworks we see a clear turnaround in divorce risks across many countries, in particular among the higher educated. And how can we discuss the erosion of marriage without also discussing the rise of cohabitation?


    1. Gosta:

      Well, let’s say a pre-nup does not reduce the divorce rate, but reduces litigation costs and acrimony down the line. It would still be a public policy wine. Preventative controls on the front-end, rather than the back-end. I am not sure any divorce rates have gone back to their pre no-fault levels.

      But you are right that cohabitation has had a huge impact on the decrease of people getting married.



  5. “So little reflection on such a bad track record—it’s enough to make you think that increasing marriage isn’t the main goal of the movement.” – This snark is completely unwarranted. If the action items of the National Marriage Project had actually been implemented, the social collapse could actually have been averted. Now, it’s too late.

    “we can’t build our social welfare system around the assumption that everyone does or should get married if they or their children want to be cared for” – All capital, economic as well as social, comes from married men. Tax payers are primarily married men. Social capital is primarily created by married families. When marriages end, there will not be any capital – economic or social – to redistribute.


    1. Ummm, I don’t think the NMP action item of 1-year delays in divorce would have really had a big of impact as you think. And of course, a single woman who works at Proctor and Gamble, who invests 10% of her income in a 401(k), is not producing any capital at all. None.


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