America Comment

To promote strong families, America needs a shift in economic policy

Flower girls (Getty Images)

The breakdown of marriage hurts the poor especially. It should be seen as the social justice issue of our time

Nearly a decade ago, Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at the Johns Hopkins University, published a book called The Marriage-Go-Round which brought thirty years of research to bear on the state of marriage in America. One of his several dramatic findings was that Americans no longer saw marriage as something foundational for their lives but rather as a “capstone” to a successful life. Because of contraceptive technology, the sexual urge no longer propelled people into marrying young as it once did. And yet, Americans still wanted to get married just as soon as all the economic factors line up in their favor. For many Americans, marriage has become something more aspirational than essential. It has become a kind of deracinated symbol of status that is enjoyed only by the rich.

However, Cherlin’s very helpful distinction between a foundational and a capstone view of marriage came with a strange recommendation: he thought people should be encouraged to take their time discerning, slow down, maybe cohabitate, and enter into marriage with greater caution. This he thought would lead to greater relational stability which would be good for society.

Soon after Cherlin’s book, Charles Murray published Coming Apart. It acknowledged Cherlin’s insight that marriage had become a luxury good. But Murray showed how much this widened the gap between the rich and the poor. He showed that in 1960 almost all children — 95 per cent — lived with their biological parents. There was no difference between rich and poor. Marriage was foundational for both the affluent and working class. By 2005, however, less than a third of working-class families were intact, while 85 per cent of affluent families were intact — a much more modest decline from the 1960 standard. Murray showed how Cherlin’s shift between a foundational and capstone view of marriage had opened up a massive economic inequality.

The shift to a capstone or aspirational view of marriage can now be seen to have a wildly disproportionate effect on the working-class, most of whose children do not enjoy the significant social and economic benefits of marriage. Increasingly, thinkers are beginning to realize that this has political consequences which statesmen should be facing much more seriously.

In recent months, Senator Marco Rubio has been publishing a series of columns and position papers which do just that. Yesterday he wrote “You can judge the health of a nation by the strength of its families. That is why its our imperative as policymakers to protect and expand our laws that promote strong families.”

Yet in a post-Obergefell context, at least some of our laws have been compromised by the luxury good view of marriage which has proven such a burden to the poor. Nevertheless, the solution, he writes, remains embedded “in our DNA, of course; stable, two-parent families have been the bedrock of all successful civilizations throughout all of history.”

Senator Rubio does not think the government can make people get married, have children, or be good spouses and parents. He does think that the policy wonks and lawmakers can, however, work to assist in the revival of a marriage culture not simply by promoting a foundational view of marriage, as important as that is on the cultural level, but also by shifting American trade and economic policy so as to build greater incentives to form families, and also greater protections around family flourishing. For example, where is the legislation that would ensure that work weeks are predictable and stable, and that there are days of rest that a whole family can enjoy together instead of being pulled in many directions by a chaotic gig economy? Where is the legislation that would expand the federal per-child tax credit?

Senator Rubio is right. The capstone view of marriage as luxury good is civic suicide. It depletes the American spirit, and makes us unstable as a people. The capstone view of marriage brings great and recursive disadvantage to the poor, and as such it should be seen as the social justice issue of our time. If we do not begin thinking about how politics can order itself to serve a foundational view of marriage, and the strong families which may flow from them, then we’ll deserve the kind of civic collapse that will follow.

My own sense is that Cherlin drew the wrong conclusion from the right premise. We already encourage young people to wait, to go slow, to put marriage off as an aspirational capstone to a successful life — and this does not make people happier, and it certainly does not make relationships more stable. This capstone view of marriage is very convenient for the arrangements of capital, but it is very inconvenient for a healthy political community which depends on strong, stable families. We have to ask how our laws can best communicate which we prize more: an unbridled economy, or an economy which is bridled to serve the familial, political, and ecclesial common good.