Discussion: (0 comments)
There are no comments available.
A public policy blog from AEI
Marriage is one of society’s oldest institutions, and research suggests its importance hasn’t faded with time. To discuss the numerous benefits of marriage, as well as its role in the “Millennial Success Sequence,” AEI visiting scholar and UVA professor W. Bradford Wilcox joined me on the podcast.
Pethokoukis: Let’s talk first, because George Will wrote a column about it not too long ago, about keeping Millennials out of poverty and the importance of what is called the “success sequence.” First, what is going on with Millennials and marriage, and what role does the success sequence play in all of that?
Everyone probably knows that Millennials are taking a variety of different routes into adulthood, and they’re also taking longer to get to adulthood. We see in the research that about half the Millennials are in this success sequence — I’ll talk about that in a second — and about half of them are not. We also see that for those who have become parents — and a majority of them have not yet become parents — about half of them are having their kids outside of marriage, so that’s a pretty big trend there to reckon with.
The bottom line is there is a variety of different routes Millennials are taking into adulthood, and what this report that we just released suggests is that Millennials who are following the success sequence — which is getting at least a high school degree, then working full-time in your twenties, then getting married and having kids — is linked to much better economic outcomes for young adults today than pursuing alternative paths into adulthood.
There’s some pushback on the success sequence. Those things seem superficially pretty commonsensical, but some people push back on it. Do they just think it doesn’t work, or that it emphasizes the wrong things?
It’s important to note here that we’re building on the work of Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill at Brookings who first proposed the idea of this success sequence back in 2009 as a durable path into the middle class and a way of steering clear of poverty. We wanted to test if that idea was still applicable for a younger generation using longitudinal data over time.
In terms of pushback against this idea of a success sequence, I think there are two important points that can be made in response. One, young adults today face a pretty difficult work environment, and it’s hard for many younger adults to find jobs that are stable and pay a decent wage. So it’s really about these outside structures when it comes to who is succeeding and who is not. Related to that, there are certain young adults who have benefited from being raised by strong and stable families, good neighborhoods, good schools, and for them it is easy to follow this sequence and do well in the American economy.
A second argument is that education and work may matter for young adults, but marriage per se really isn’t all that important, and if we can just change public policy to strengthen educational opportunity and strengthen access to decent jobs, then that is more than sufficient.
Right, I think the argument is that if you get kids graduated from high school and get them a full-time job, that’s the heavy lifting of the sequence. In other words, the marriage part really isn’t all that important. Is that wrong?
Well, that’s the argument. We actually looked into this and were able to test that idea with longitudinal data that is looking at young adults as they go from adolescence into their late 20s and 30s. In a multivariable context where you’re controlling for things like education, employment background, experience, race and ethnicity, family income growing up, their AFQT score and measures of intelligence as adolescents — even controlling for these factors, we find that young adults who marry before having kids are about twice as likely to reach the middle class or higher compared to those who have a baby first, and they’re about 60% less likely to end up poor as adults aged 28–34. So that suggests to us there is something about marriage per se and the ordering of marriage and parenthood that matters.
So the sequence is not just about education, it’s also about how you approach family formation. So the question then becomes, “what is it about marrying before you have kids that’s important?”
But is marrying at all important? Is it just the sequence, or is it actually that getting married is an important thing to avoid poverty?
Marriage itself of course does matter, not just in our research but in other research as well that’s been done by a variety of people including Bob Lerman at the Urban Institute. So marriage matters. Today it’s often about pooling income, it’s about economies of scale, people become more responsible with saving and investing when they’re married . . .
So there is a behavioral change? It’s not just that two people can live more cheaply than one.
Right, and in terms of the sequence here, the issue is about family stability. We know that couples up and down the income ladder, whether they are college educated or not, are much more likely to stay together if they put marriage before the baby carriage, whereas couples that don’t lock in that public display of commitment to one another and their family and friends before they have a child are much more likely to break up. And then we’re talking about a single parent family, or a non-residential father typically who is paying child support, and those two different scenarios are not as conducive to economic flourishing and are more conducive to having economic difficulties.
Broadly, what is the state of marriage now?
There’s good news and bad news here on the marriage front. On the one hand, we have seen things bottom out on a lot of marriage trends. For instance, the marriage rate had fallen a great deal from the 70s to about 2012, but it’s actually since come up a little bit. Likewise, when it comes to kids being born outside of marriage, that was growing — Moynihan obviously sounded the alarm on this back in the 1960s — but since 2008 there has been no increase in the share of kids born outside of marriage; in fact there has been a modest decline. So on two big indicators we see a bit of a leveling out, and maybe even reason to be a bit more hopeful.
Now on the negative side, we do see a much more stratified and unequal marriage regime in America. What we’re seeing is that working class and poor Americans are much less likely to be living in stable marriages, and their kids are much more likely to be experiencing instability and single parenthood — because among other things the parents are often having their kids in these cohabiting relationships that do not go the distance. So that is creating a difficult social and economic and psychological dynamic for adults and kids who are primarily poor or working class and are experiencing much more family instability.
A few writers such as Charles Murray have been discussing this, where you’ve got this bifurcation with the families at the top versus the families in the bottom third living very different lives. And one way that manifests itself is marriage and family formation. And that trend does not seem to be getting better.
That’s not getting better. Although it is important to note that for the working class, the majority of them are still having their kids within marriage. So marriage has not disappeared among the working class. But as Charles Murray’s research indicates, it has become more fragile in working class countries across the country. We’re almost at a tipping point. If we can hold the line, and have no more increases in nonmarital childbearing, for instance, that would be huge. But we may not be able to do that; we’ll see.
Is this primarily a story of economics?
Economics is a fundamental factor in all of this, because working class and poor Americans are more likely to be caught up in this cycle of instability and fragile families where marriage is less common and weaker. Progressives would probably stress that part and leave it there.
But that’s not the whole story. I agree it’s a huge part of the story, but one way to explain this is to think about the 1930s. You had huge economic trauma to American workers and families during the Great Depression — but no increase in family instability, no increase in divorce, no increase in single parenthood. You had a very different cultural and civic and policy context in the 1930s. Families were much more stable back then.
By contrast today, I would argue we have a policy context today where marriage is often penalized by means-tested policies like Medicaid and food stamps, for instance. And these penalties now affect working class Americans more than the poorest Americans. We have a civic context where working class and poor Americans are much less likely to attend church than their college-educated peers, surprisingly. And they’re also less engaged in secular civic engagements. So they’re socially isolated from the institutions that might help their families and their marriages.
And culturally of course we live in a world where the idea of a success sequence — that you should actually order things in terms of education, work, marriage, and parenthood — has a purchase among upper middle class kids and parents but is much more fragile today among working class and poor adolescents and their families. And that affects how they think about sex, marriage, parenthood, divorce, in ways that also are important in understanding all of this.
Some people have pointed out the success sequence seems to work a lot better for white people. Is this criticism right? And is this success sequence universally applicable?
It’s important to point out that younger adults, Millennials who have come from low-income families and black Millennials are more likely to be suffering from poverty in their late 20s and 30s; they are less likely to be in the middle and upper class. So there is a difference in levels, if you will. But if you look at the effect of the sequence, it seems to be pretty comparable across racial lines and across family incomes. In other words, African Americans who follow this sequence and young adults who come from poor families who follow this sequence are doing much better than their peers.
So they might not be doing as well as their white peers, but they are doing better than their peers from the same demographic.
Exactly. So, we find in the report that African Americans who follow the sequence are much more likely to reach the middle class and upper classes.
So why the disparity then?
Well, on the race front, there are a variety of factors that one could talk about, including the neighborhoods that African Americans tend to grow up in and live in — even in the middle class they tend to have more difficulties and fewer assets passed intergenerationally, and that will adversely affect things. So there are a variety of reasons why African Americans are less likely to be flourishing, but the point I would make is the sequence seems to work pretty well in boosting their odds of getting past the obstacles that our society places in their path.
One criticism I’ve heard — mainly from the right — is you’re saying that if you have a baby, you’re in trouble, and you better get rid of it. So it becomes an almost pro-abortion argument.
That’s certainly a risk here in all of this, but it is important for younger adults and teenagers to realize that their odds of flourishing and their kids odds of flourishing are much better if they put the marriage before the baby carriage.
So the point I’m making here is you give people a standard and a goal to reach, and you recognize that some people aren’t going to reach that goal. The left might be more upset about that. And there are some people who in the face of that goal might have an abortion. The right is going to be concerned about that. And both these concerns are valid. But I still think it’s the case that if more teenagers and young adults can follow the sequence, and more importantly aspire to the sequence, on average it’s going to be good for them and their families.
“If more teenagers and young adults can follow the sequence, and more importantly aspire to the sequence, on average it’s going to be good for them and their families.”
I’ve certainly heard that criticism from folks on the right. And maybe the big criticism from folks on the left would be: “You’re making an argument about poverty that’s about behavior, when what we should be looking at is about wealth and income and how they’re not fairly distributed in this country.” They’ll say your argument is a huge distraction from the very important distribution arguments, which are far more important than the success sequence.
I think the problem with the left argument — that it’s all about structures and economics — is it denies the importance of two things. One is culture, and the second thing is character.
On the cultural front, as I say in the report, there are many cultures in this society including the upper middle class who tend to inculcate certain kinds of norms. For instance, we can see in the research that upper middle class kids are much more likely to be ashamed to have a pregnancy as a teenager, compared to kids from the working class. And that in turn predicts their odds of having a baby outside of marriage. So my point is that culture is playing out in various ways that actually advantage upper middle class kids. We also see, for instance, that family trends are profoundly different in Utah, for cultural reasons. So there is evidence on the ground that culture matters — in terms of class, region, religion, race, and ethnicity.
But, it’s also the case too beyond that point that character matters. We have to respect the idea that agency exists.
Agency in the sense that you’re not just buffeted around by the forces of destiny and society — you can do something.
Exactly. And I think the problem is the left’s view is profoundly disempowering. For instance, we can see in the data that kids in poor families are less likely to make it, but if they follow the sequence their odds are much higher. So we need to let people know that there are certain kinds of decisions, behaviors, and strategies that can protect people from poverty and put you on the path toward the American dream.
I think the left is right to be concerned about failing schools, poor neighborhoods, and any number of factors that disadvantage African Americans and younger Americans from poor families. But it is still the case that we can’t deny the importance of character and the importance of making better decisions versus poor decisions.
One of the reasons we’re focusing on this is since the election we have a lot more people focusing on the working class, on Appalachia, and you’re mentioning Utah and the cultural capital out there. So is this a cultural issue and there’s not much you can do with public policy? Should public policy be getting more Mormon missionaries to do their missions in West Virginia, as opposed to this or that tax subsidy or childcare credit?
I think one of the reasons the left gets anxious about these kinds of reports that I do is they are thinking about these issues primarily through the policy lens. They’ll ask, “Are you saying because marriage is good the government should do X, Y, and Z?” Well, I think there can be policies that can be helpful here at the margins. Trying to address the marriage penalty facing many working class families now would be helpful. Doing more to improve education and vocational training for younger adults would be helpful in strengthening their families economically and probably also their marriages down the road. But I think fundamentally this is a cultural challenge facing us.
So the answer here lies not so much in Washington DC, or Sacramento, or in Richmond. It lies more fundamentally, I would say, in Madison Avenue and Southern California, but also in the civic institutions that to a large extent have often dropped the ball on these issues in recent years. So my point here is that this is fundamentally a cultural problem to a large extent, and unless and until we can change the culture around marriage and parenthood, we are not going to be able to really address this problem.
Cultures are fluid things. There are certain deep aspects of culture that last from generation to generation, but it’s not a stagnant, static thing. Things can change. So do you talk to people in the advertising industry and Hollywood?
I’ve been out to Southern California to give a number of talks, but I have not been out to Madison Avenue, but I’d love to. We do a lot of work with the media around these questions and this work has been covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other outlets. The idea here is some people are paying attention, and we’re thinking of how this work may be affecting younger adults.
Certainly the impression when I watch TV is that yes marriage is a fine thing, but there are plenty of alternative ways for families to be structured. And not just single families, but marriage with multiple partners — there are all these sister wives shows. And that seems to be the overriding theme.
Right, I think we’re at a cultural moment where when it comes to family life, tolerance and diversity and acceptance are the three buzzwords.
And is what you’re saying that there is a way that’s better than the other ways?
Right. I think the weird part about this is a lot of our elites publicly affirm the idea of acceptance, tolerance, and diversity when it comes to family life in a public venue, and yet when it comes to themselves and their children, it’s “no no no no no.” And that’s the great irony.
They’re still traditional.
Neo-traditional. They’re a lot more egalitarian than two generations ago, but in terms of marriage as an anchor for their lives and their kids lives, it’s very clear that that’s the case. Both in this recent report and more generally, and that’s the irony. And so the question is: “Can we come to a more general agreement that what’s being practiced in upper middle class neighborhoods in Bethesda and Falls Church and elsewhere might have some value for the outer suburbs, rural small town communities, and our inner cities as well?”
With this subject, something that often comes up is, “Well, they do it differently in Sweden. In Scandinavia they treat marriage differently and they have these amazing outcomes on all different scales of health and happiness and it’s a more egalitarian society.” Maybe go into that a little bit.
Well, it’s important for us to acknowledge Sweden does have lower levels of child poverty because they have a very different approach to welfare policy. They are much more generous with grants to lower income families. But, in terms of other key points the conversation we’re having here is really not that different than what you see in Scandinavia.
Can’t people just live together? The cohabitation question, is that part of it?
Well, that’s part of it, but even there we did a report showing in Scandinavia, in France, in Italy, kids who are born to cohabiting parents — in the UK, Norway, France, Italy — are much more likely to see their parents break up by the time they turn 12 compared to kids who are born to married parents. These are all societies that are very different from one another in Europe, and also from America — some are more religious, some secular, some Protestant, some Catholic, whatever — and it’s a similar story.
So marriage seems to be a sociological institution that is a marker of commitment and affords stability for kids. So that’s where the story is similar. It’s also the case too that in a country like Sweden, for instance, there has been a dramatic increase in family inequality. Upper middle class Swedes are enjoying a high level of family stability, whereas working class and poor Swedes are seeing much more instability as well. So that story is playing out even in Sweden.
And the final point I’d make about Scandinavia is that when it comes to single parenthood, kids in Scandinavia are much less likely to experience economic want than kids in America. But on the social and emotional outcomes — things like drug use, suicide, ideation, etc. — kids who are being raised in single parent families are much more likely to be at risk compared to their peers being raised in two-parent families.
“On the social and emotional outcomes . . . kids who are being raised in single parent families are much more likely to be at risk compared to their peers being raised in two-parent families.”
Do you get pushback to the notion that kids who come from those kinds of backgrounds do worse? You’ll get criticized for saying “those are bad parents, those are bad families.” Or do people acknowledge your point?
It depends on how educated the critic is. I was raised by a single mom and it’s important to note that many kids who are raised by single parents do fine. We’re talking here about relative odds of risk. And so what we see in Scandinavia, and Italy, and the US is that, on average, kids who are raised in intact two-parent families are more likely to be flourishing educationally, socially, and psychologically. And yeah, there are differences in terms of how that plays out from one country to the next, but the general point in the West at least that intact, two-parent families is better for kids isn’t really contested by scholars.
This seems like one of those quasi-taboo things . . .
Yeah, you don’t like to talk about it in public, but the scholars all know it’s true, who do the serious empirical research on this question.
And what’s the role of faith here in these families? Another area where you might have folks saying “If we just have stronger safety net programs, the church/faith aspect isn’t as important.” But as far as building strong families . . .
That’s a good question. At least in the States, we see that couples who share a common faith, who attend services together, and especially who pray together are more likely to be flourishing, and their kids are more likely to be flourishing. There’s something about having shared rituals, a community that’s often more family-centered than the broader society, that can be helpful. And again, in my research I find that about one in four spouses who are regularly attending with their husband or wife are not happy, so it’s not like a silver bullet. But, they are more likely to be happy in their marriages than those who are not attending together or not attending at all. So again, religion tends to be a force for greater marital quality, greater marital stability, greater child outcomes — on average.
Is this a controversial line of research?
It is, yeah, because I think if you’re looking at things like educational policy or poverty, people can disagree about all these things. But they don’t often directly speak to adults’ personal experiences. When it comes to things particularly like marriage, cohabitation, divorce, nonmarital childbearing, people are sensitive because their own experiences may not conform to the most successful model on average.
And do some people not like it because it sounds like government, top-down control over family and reproductive life? That not only are you passing judgments but then you want to have policies that seem to encourage one form of family or behavior? This could kind of sound like big government to a lot of people.
That’s true of many on the left, and the more libertarian-minded conservatives. They’re concerned that any strong move to be made on behalf of marriage and family would advance a big government model that violates their appreciation for limited government.
Right, for instance I’ve written a bit about the child tax credit — should it be expanded, and different kinds of reforms — and most of the negative feedback I get is from my more libertarian followers. But you obviously see a value in public policy in strengthening families. You don’t really want it to be neutral. Because right now for tax policy a lot of times we want it to be neutral, to get rid of biases, but you don’t want neutrality, you want policies that promote families — two-parent married families having kids, because when you look at the fertility rate, that worries you.
What I would say is I’m looking for policies that make it easier for working families to raise kids, and that’s an expensive thing to do today. And that’s investing in our future, so I think we could do more to make it easier for families across the board to raise their kids, not to privilege one model over another, or to say we’re going to give some tax credits to those who are paying for child care and not to those who have a parent at home.
On the marriage front per se, I think the best we can do right now is to work toward a welfare model where we’re not penalizing marriage among working class and poor Americans who are receiving Medicaid, food stamps, or a Pell Grant. And right now, the way these programs are structured, people often rightly or wrongly perceive a penalty to getting married and declaring their joint income, which might make them less eligible for support from these kinds of programs. So I think we’ve got to think about ways to restructure these policies to make them less marriage-unfriendly, so to speak.
So while maybe the primary thing is to think about the culture and the changing norms, but on the margins you think public policy . . .
Right, it can be helpful. And again, we have to be particularly sure that we’re not — both in terms of the signalling and the economics — penalizing marriage among lower income families. And that we’re also making it a bit easier to afford kids, who are obviously pretty expensive — that would be helpful as well.
There are no comments available.
1789 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036
© 2017 American Enterprise Institute