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The economics of marriage: A short-read Q&A with W. Bradford Wilcox
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: 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 are 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.
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.
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 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 their 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 is important in understanding all of this.
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.”
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. 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.
What are the policy implications of your research?
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.