The decline of marriage norms is hurting the poor

Barack and Michelle ObamaRising rates of fatherlessness, a culture of promiscuity, and persistently high divorce rates are impoverishing millions of people. While marriage rates remain high in our society’s upper classes, the institution has all but collapsed among the poor, leaving in its wake an epidemic of broken homes and families deprived of social capital.

The debate over the social desirability of marriage burst into the public consciousness in 1992, when US Vice President Dan Quayle famously decried Murphy Brown, a sitcom career woman who was portrayed sympathetically during her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Quayle lamented the message he believed the show was sending: marriage doesn’t really matter.

Quayle was mocked relentlessly for his comments. But the shots he fired into the cultural battlefield ignited a firestorm of opinion and debate about marriage and family values, and he was arguably vindicated by social science as well as the opinions of his successors in American government. All three US presidents since 1992 have taken care more than once to extol the necessity of fatherhood and marriage, as the proportion of US children born outside wedlock passes 40%, with much higher rates among racial minorities and the poor.

Even Candice Bergen, the actress who played Murphy Brown, commented in 2002, “I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless, but his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.”

Over the last two decades, social scientists have arrived at a consensus: the erosion of the marriage institution is hurting our society. As one example of this trend, the New York Times reports that as much as 40% of inequality growth in the US is explained by changing marriage patterns. Regrettably, there exists no consensus in the broader public consciousness that there is a problem, and no united front has appeared for shoring up the institution.

No consensus on marriage

Conservative observers, who are inclined to see poverty as a natural consequence of libertine sexuality, have jumped on the family values bandwagon. Liberals, who by all accounts care deeply about the poor, unfortunately have generally not, electing instead to talk about globalization, government policy, discrimination or other causes of poverty unrelated to marriage. An observant writer last year in the Atlantic asked, “why is it hard for liberals to talk about family values?”

White, college-educated liberals in particular are among the likeliest to marry but among the least likely to offer vocal support for the institution. They show a reluctance to “preach what they practice”, as Charles Murray describes the phenomenon.

There’s a mindset of complacency at play. For the wealthy and educated, the prospect of a single life is not a fearful one, financially speaking, so it’s easy to take marriage for granted. But for the uneducated and less advantaged, not marrying means a statistical near-certainty of life at or below the poverty line. Ironically, it is the complacent wealthy who usually marry, while the poor far too often do not.

Those who plan on a single life, however, are still in the minority: 28% of Millennials over 18 are married and a further 56% say they hope to be married at some point. But, astonishingly, only 29% believe that society is better off when marriage is made a priority. The modern philosophy seems to be, “sure, I want to get married, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should.”

If this is the case, then maybe the answer to the Atlantic’s question—why is it so hard for liberals to talk about family values?—is a reluctance to appear judgmental. Charles Murray calls this attitude “ecumenical niceness”. This agreeability might just be dangerous, because social expectations, sanctions and norms, really do affect how people act, as a wide array of social scientific literature attests.

Liberals don’t bear full responsibility for the marriage crisis, however. Conservatives have a tendency to make marriage too materialistic. Marriage in the 1940s and 50s, for all of its virtue and vigor, was characterized by parents who spent surprisingly little time with their children, and who were concerned too much with the appeal of a new post-war middle class lifestyle. Traditional norms, while vital, do not themselves a happy family make.

Children raised in this culturally conservative environment became the next decade’s hippies and cultural revolutionaries. Their error was that in their crusade against their parents’ materialism they also rejected the traditional sexual and family norms that had given them the stability and well-being they continued to enjoy.

Norms matter

The norms and taboos that historically surrounded marriage often included the expectations that sex should wait for marriage, that a man who impregnates a woman will marry her, that married couples should have children, and that divorce is a matter of last resort. While not everyone bent to these expectations in decades past, most people did, and those who didn’t at least publicly endorsed them. Nowadays, these norms are labelled “stigma” at best, and openly rejected at worst.

However, these norms still exist in our upper class, if as unspoken best practices more than expectations. It’s the poor who have lost the norms almost completely in the midst of their public disavowal by the wealthy. Dan Quayle touched on the phenomenon in his notorious speech:

When we were young, it was fashionable to declare war against traditional values. … And, of course, the great majority of those in the middle class survived the turbulent legacy of the ’60s and ’70s. But many of the poor, with less to fall back on, did not. The inter-generational poverty that troubles us so much today is predominantly a poverty of values.

Fathers leave their pregnant girlfriends with tragic ubiquity in the lower socioeconomic classes, and around two thirds of lower class children grow up without both of their biological parents, and the rates are even higher for the children of poor Hispanic and black mothers. As healthy norms have eroded, so has healthy behavior.

Marriage without norms

Marriage normlessness has also created its own philosophical novelties. Somewhere between 1970 and now, in the relative absence of cultural taboos surrounding matrimony, many of us have lost part of the vision of marriage itself. Many anthropologists half a century ago would have told you that marriage is an institution whereby a woman’s children are recognized as the legitimate offspring of the woman and her husband. The identity of marriage involved, if not revolved around, its role as the fount of sex and family. The norms of permanence, loyalty, fertility and virginity all flowed from that essence.

But these norms evaporated in the desert of non-judgmentalism, and the vision underlying them began to make less and less sense. Observers began using a sort of reverse definitional logic. Marriage couldn’t be about procreation, because many people procreate outside marriage. It couldn’t revolve around having a family because we don’t expect couples to have kids. This shift in visions further undermined the weakened norms in a kind of vicious circle.

This decade’s gay marriage debate has at worse reinforced, or at best revealed in its proponents, an unprecedented postmodern vision of matrimony, where marriage is not defined in terms of family at all, but only in terms of love and commitment (along with vestigial property and legal rights). As theologian Albert Mohler narrated last year: marriage was reimagined “in terms of personal fulfillment rather than covenant obligation. Duty disappeared in the fog of demands for authenticity … Companionate marriage was secularized and redefined solely in terms of erotic and romantic appeal—for so long as these might last.”

No public definition of marriage has ever been perfect at any point in history. But some visions are better than others: if marriage is defined in terms of romance, fulfillment or commitment, there is little to prevent further radical changes to norms and rules.

In fact, some “polyamorous” activists have interpreted recent court decisions as applying to the situation of poly-oriented people. Many commentators have begun to argue that marriage should not exist as a civil institution at all. Childless marriages and “open” marriages are now on the banks of the mainstream, and consensual sibling marriage can perhaps be seen in the distance.

Raising our vision of marriage

If trends continue and the marriage institution continues to erode, there could be calamitous consequences for civilization. Moderate but left-of-center psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt compares the decline of marriage to global warming as a political issue: both are real and significant dangers to humanity, but most of us see only one of these two asteroids hurtling toward us, to use his analogy.

So it’s with difficulty that we apprehend the challenge of rebuilding marriage culture, a challenge which requires the efforts of everyone who cares about poverty and societal stability, both liberals and conservatives, religious and irreligious. The challenge is neither to invent a culture entirely new (as liberals might suggest) nor to re-create the materialist 1950s (as conservatives often propose).

A restored marriage culture should involve a return to a more responsible sexual regime—one where women can reasonably expect men to take responsibility for their offspring, and where sex is tied to commitment, and ideally to marriage. But it should also place a higher emphasis on child-rearing than on career or external pursuits, on the immaterial over the material. Gender roles need not be enforced for the sake of nostalgia, but sexual complementarity should be celebrated and upheld where biology makes it prudent.

Arriving at this kind of cultural consensus on marriage and family is vital for the well-being of future generations. The upper class in particular should begin to preach what many of them practice, and to admit that faithful, fruitful, permanent marriage is a good and desirable thing—not just for them but for everyone. All of us should have the courage to defend marriage and the norms that protect it. If we don’t, it will be an impoverished future generation who pays the price.

Photo credit: “Barack and Michelle exit the stage” by Luke Vargas, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

6 thoughts on “The decline of marriage norms is hurting the poor

  1. Excellent summary here, Tom. I would only add one comment to this quote:

    A restored marriage culture should involve a return to a more responsible sexual regime—one where women can reasonably expect men to take responsibility for their offspring, and where sex is tied to commitment, and ideally to marriage.

    I don’t think there is an situation apart from marriage where sex can be fully “tied to commitment,” especially as a societal norm. It is the very desire to have sex and/or children outside of a contractual/covenantal setting that defines a lack of full commitment. This is illustrated by the fact that those who cohabit before marriage have a higher rate of divorce than those who don’t.

    • Thanks, John. I agree with you that sex won’t ever be fully tied to commitment without marriage. However, there is some literature to suggest that non-marital monogamy is better for kids than single parenthood or outright promiscuity. In my conclusion, I admittedly concede something to the reality of our current culture when it comes to public policy. I think that promoting monogamy and faithfulness is a good, realistic first step on the path to a culture that embraces the marital ideal.

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  3. Shouldnt this title be changed to “The Lack of Reproductive Health Education and Access to Facilities and Women’s Health Clinics is Hurting the Poor” or maybe from your previous comment above “Promoting Monogamy and Faithfulness Might Save the Less Fortunate”

    The stereotype about absentee black fathers – myth – was this supposed to have been written based on current data?
    Source1: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr071.pdf
    Source 2: http://articles.latimes.com/…/la-me-black-dads-20131221

    Maybe provide something more concrete to back this up:
    “Fathers leave their pregnant girlfriends with tragic ubiquity in the lower socioeconomic classes, and around two thirds of lower class children grow up without both of their biological parents, and the rates are even higher for the children of poor Hispanic and black mothers. As healthy norms have eroded, so has healthy behavior.”

    Are you an anthropologist? If not, sources? Quotes?
    “But these norms evaporated in the desert of non-judgmentalism, and the vision underlying them began to make less and less sense. Observers began using a sort of reverse definitional logic. Marriage couldn’t be about procreation, because many people procreate outside marriage. It couldn’t revolve around having a family because we don’t expect couples to have kids. This shift in visions further undermined the weakened norms in a kind of vicious circle.”

    And this?
    “Many commentators have begun to argue that marriage should not exist as a civil institution at all. Childless marriages and “open” marriages are now on the banks of the mainstream, and consensual sibling marriage can perhaps be seen in the distance.”

    I mean “If trends continue and the marriage institution continues to erode, there could be calamitous consequences for civilization” — I mean you have made quite the dramatic essay here, but you seem to have gone through a lot of effort to get your message across, so maybe put in just a little more to back these up

    • Thanks for the comment. The point about providing more sources is well taken, so I appreciate it!

      As far as stereotypes about black fathers, the only related reference I made was this, I think: “around two thirds of lower class children grow up without both of their biological parents, and the rates are even higher for the children of poor Hispanic and black mothers”. That information is from “Coming Apart”, a recent book about marriage and family sociology in the US.

      The data on children’s living situations overall (i.e. not by class, as in Coming Apart) are widely known, and are published by the US government. The idea that black children live much less often with their fathers is a matter of observation. Around 70% of all kids have two parents at home, compared to under 40% for black children.

      http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p70-126.pdf

      The study you refer to finds that black fathers who live with their kids are as involved as other fathers who live with their kids, and that black fathers who don’t live with their kids are as involved as other fathers in the same situation—this is great, but the data is already adjusted for living situation, so it doesn’t tell us whether the fathers are “absentee” in the first place.

      As far as the other paragraphs you quoted, while the narrative I was offering is admittedly very much up for debate, most of the questions of fact I refer to are enough within the realm of common sense to be in a blog post, I think. I don’t think many people would claim that the four marital norms I referred to (virginity, permanence, etc.) are not evaporating, or would dispute that most people don’t define marriage in terms of procreation anymore. Open marriages and childless marriages are more common and face less taboo than in the past: I think “banks of the mainstream” is not a controversial characterization.

      The genuinely controversial claim I made was incest. But I think bringing that up is defensible. Just yesterday, an Australian judge began making the legal case for incest:

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/10958728/Australian-judge-says-incest-may-no-longer-be-a-taboo.html

      Thanks again for the thoughts.

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