A critical post describes me this way: “progressives, like sociologist Philip Cohen, who seek to minimize or deny the importance of family structure.” It’s not an accurate way to frame this debate. The question is much more about goals. If your goal is reducing child poverty, for example, we know how to do that, more or less — something like giving their parents money. But the ostensible goal of the marriage promotion people is increasing marriage because they believe there are things that come from marriage that are both good and not producible through any other means. I say ostensible because, given the obvious futility of all marriage promotion policies, one must suspect other motives as well. (Some of those motives are religious, of course, but I set those aside for now).
No doubt there are some things that only marriage can truly provide to children under present conditions. But that doesn’t imply a particular policy goal, much less a specific approach. I have a few problems with assuming we need more marriage.
What’s wrong with that?
Demographic barriers. First, not everyone can be married, or have married parents, no matter what we do with policy. So we need to figure out how to minimize the harms associated with not being married anyway. The steeper the penalty for non-marriage (what most people call the benefits of marriage) the less we are responding to the needs of people who suffer not only the losses that flow from non-marriage, but also the deficits that cause non-marriage.
This is one thing that’s so powerful about Chinese history for me — as told by Lee and Wang — in which marriage was absolutely essential for social success and also mathematically denied to a large portion of the population (because of female infanticide and polygyny). In that case you’d find a very strong benefit to marriage — in a system of marriage that exacted tremendous costs. If we have a strong marriage benefit (that is, non-marriage penalty) we have the same situation as feudal China. The demography of inequality means lots of people can’t be married. Here are the sex ratios for non-Hispanic Blacks and Whites by age (this is the whole U.S. population, not just single people, or people who aren’t in prison):
This is just an example of a demographic dead end for marriage promoters. What’s the plan? The plan is that some large portion of poor and/or Black women — because of circumstances beyond their control — should not have children. (In their heart of hearts, they believe they shouldn’t have sex at all, but that’s not spoken in polite circles.) Life is hard. Try going to church instead.
Marriage is bad, too. Second, marriage also causes harms. This should be obvious, but I guess in a society where people are so ready to believe that racial discrimination isn’t a problem anymore or that women have actually overturned patriarchy, we have to keep pointing that out. The married-couple family is still an extremely dangerous place for a lot of people — mostly women and children — whose abuse and exploitation is made more difficult to root out the more we make marriage an exalted status and indicator of social competence. It’s not an accident that marital rape was protected by law for all those centuries — the men who did it were (are) engaged in the successful performance of admirable patriarchal roles.
Outside of violent rape and abuse, there are also lots of people who aren’t happy in their marriages, or who don’t want to be married at all. In 1960, 94% of women were married before reaching age 40. Now that number is 78%. You know if 94% of people were married a lot of them weren’t happy. So, what’s the right number, marriage promoters? Is 78% participation in your favorite institution too low? To the people who aren’t happy in marriage, or don’t want to be married, the marriage promoters offer two choices: be celibate, or shame on you. (Actually, there is a third choice: date night!) For people who want to have children, too, their offer is to punish your children by withholding a child tax credit.
Signification. Third, the more we support marriage through politics, policy, and “the culture,” the more we increase its value as a conformity signifier, the more we constrain people’s family options — and that exacerbates the non-marriage penalty, which starts to look like other penalties people dole out for non-conformity, like gender non-conformity for example, or employer discrimination in favor of married men.
Bologna. Fourth — and less important, given the first three — of course there is no evidence that policy can increase marriage in any meaningful way, making the whole exercise deeply cynical. It’s largely a conversation between people validating the importance of marriage in their own social (and political and religious) circles, rather than a serious attempt to reverse the course of modern demographic evolution.
I have been dealing with the paradox of marriage advantages for many years. Here’s a little greatest-hits history on this argument, with links. (I’m assembling this material for a book project anyway).
In a 2001 review of Linda Waite et al.’s edited volume, The Ties That Bind, I wrote, in reference to a chapter by Paula England, who influenced me fundamentally:
England paraphrases a quip about another tie that binds — capitalism — when she says, “The only thing worse than being dominated by a husband is not being dominated by a husband.” Given that women in the United States still have children, and are still largely responsible for their care, and given that men still dominate economically, married mothers and their children are advantaged.
So, what to do? Here’s me on Huffington Post in 2009:
…when a condition … yields benefits compared to being in some other condition — that also means it contributes to inequality. That’s because not everyone gets to experience it. If children of married couples are more likely to finish high school than those who grow up with single mothers, for example, then there is inequality between those two groups. One policy approach to that inequality is to make the condition more common — for example, encourage or coerce people to marry (or discourage people from having children when single). Another approach is to improve outcomes for people in the disadvantaged group. For example, because resource scarcity is a big part of the problem for single-parent families, we could support a public school system that educates all children effectively, or provide income support to poor families.
I carried on that argument in 2011, writing:
It’s obvious empirically that adults and children in married-couple families, on average, are doing better on many measures than those not in such families. The logical problem is when people conclude from this pattern that the obvious response is to “strengthen marriage and family life.” But, why not try to reduce that disparity instead? This is the logical equivalent of the Republican mantra that “We don’t have a revenue problem in Washington; we have a spending problem.” That’s only true if you’re doing one-handed math.
I made the case more formally in this 2014 chapter, responding to a paper by Sara McLanahan:
Cross-sectional comparisons show that children of married parents are less likely to suffer material deprivation. To reduce hardships for children, therefore, some analysts advocate policies that would increase marriage rates. I argue that alternative approaches offer more chance of success: increasing education levels and reducing the penalty for single parenthood.
And I concluded:
The rise of women’s independence, along with the decline in marriage and fertility, are interrelated parts of modern social development. And the overall consequence of these trends must be deemed positive – as life expectancies have increased, absolute poverty has decreased, and gender inequality has receded. The delay in age at marriage and the extension of divorce rights have no doubt prevented or ended many unhappy or unsafe marriages, even as they have carried risks. But the advocates for marriage offer no attempt to specify the ideal marriage rate. How are we to know that the decline in marriage has gone too far? The unwavering advocacy for more marriage, in the face of its continued inefficacy and impracticality, dissolves into ideology and distracts from the important challenges we face in attempting to improve the quality of life for poor families and their children.
Finally, I also addressed the contribution of marriage trends to economic inequality:
Falling marriage does contribute to rising inequality in the USA, because of how it’s manifesting: increasing selectivity in marriage, so that richer people are getting and staying married more; and increasing social class endogamy, so that there are more two-high-income families lording over more one-low-income families. And all of that is exacerbated by widening underlying inequality, with high-end incomes pulling away from low-end incomes, relatively unchecked by income redistribution.
One obvious solution is to take money away from married high-income people and give it to single low-income people. With all the benefits that married people get — many of them through no special effort of their own, but rather as a result of their social status at birth, race, health, good looks, legal perks, or lucky breaks — it seems reasonable to tax marriage, like a windfall profits tax, or an inheritance tax, or a progressive income tax. But, if you’re squeamish about taxing something “good” like marriage, then just taxing wealth a little more would accomplish much the same thing. This elegant solution would decrease inequality, increase well-being for poor people, and equalize life chances for children (who are the future, I believe). In other words, it’s out of the question.
Far from minimizing or denying the importance of family structure, I have written about it extensively — and argued we should find ways to reduce it. On the other hand, marriage promotion as an approach to poverty and inequality is both completely ineffective at achieving its goals and harmful in other ways.