Is marriage necessary? Americans are marrying later in life, and more of us have never married at all. Having children outside of marriage is less stigmatized than ever, making “shotgun weddings” a relic in most quarters. Today, about 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents. If you squint, it’s possible to imagine the end of marriage in America is on its way.
Skeptics look at this decline and say: Good riddance! Isn’t marriage an old-fashioned, oppressive institution anyway? Recently, however, a wave of research from think tanks on the right and left, as well as scholars in social sciences like economics and sociology, has made a forceful new defense of the venerable institution.
“It’s true that there’s a line some liberal sociologists won’t cross, that line of accepting marriage as the best arrangement,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “But I think there are a growing number of sociologists who would concede that in the world we live in today, marriage seems like the best way to give kids a stable family life.”
The new wave of pro-marriage scholarship is challenging orthodoxy in academic fields with reputations — fair or not — of being politically liberal, and perhaps even antimarriage, or at least marriage-neutral. Part of the shift is because marriage itself has changed within the last few generations. “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who has been critical of some recent scholarship promoting marriage. “When people got married who did not want to get married, especially women, and when women’s rights within marriage were much more limited, employment opportunities much less, domestic violence taken much less seriously, when rape wasn’t even a crime within marriage — that system deservedly had a bad rap.”
The new champions of marriage disagree on how, and even whether, to encourage marriage through public policy. Nonetheless, there is an emerging consensus around an idea that would have sounded retrograde just a few decades ago: that having married parents is best for children’s well-being, that marriage is beneficial for parents’ psychological and economic stability, and that it should be a priority in public policy.
“On the right, you do hear about marriage as being the solution for poverty,” said Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “On the left you hear the opposite, that single parents are here to stay, and we need to help them and their children because they’re struggling economically. I think that’s become a not very productive conversation. But there is somewhat more common ground than there used to be.” In other words, the new mood of cautious agreement signals the possibility of a rare detente in one battlefront of the culture wars.
A broad view of the statistics shows marriage in undeniable decline in America. But in fact, the institution is thriving among one group: the educated. People with at least a bachelor’s degree wait longer to marry than other groups, but most of them do marry, and their divorce rates are low. Where marriage is really struggling is among those with lower education levels. Only 13 percent of high-school dropout millennials have had all their children within marriage, compared to 68 percent of millennial parents with at least four years of college experience. And more than 60 percent of unmarried parents break up before their child’s fifth birthday.
It’s low-education (and often low-income) “fragile families” that most concern researchers. Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan recently wrote that children growing up with a single mother are “doubly disadvantaged”: They spend less time and receive less money from their biological fathers, and their mothers are also likelier to earn less than married mothers are. Children born to unmarried parents fare worse on a wide variety of measures, including an increased likelihood of developing behavior problems and of not making it to college.
The increasingly stark divide between relationships of the rich and poor mean that the marriage rate is more than a question of “family values.” It’s also a question of economic inequality — a connection to a hot-button issue that has given the topic of wedlock fresh currency in academic and political spheres. As college graduates marry college graduates, they double their income; meanwhile, those without a college education and the job opportunities that come with it are increasingly going it alone. “This class divide in marriage and family life is both cause and consequence of the growing inequality in American life,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. “It’s part and parcel of this increasingly separate and unequal society we see.”
Critics of the boom in pro-marriage scholarship say the decline in marriage rates is a symptom, not a cause, of poverty. The groups in which marriage has suffered the steepest declines “are the groups that have experienced the biggest economic changes,” said Kristi Williams, a sociologist at Ohio State University and senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families, a professional organization. “If you recognize that marriage is influenced by economic circumstances, then just trying to change marriage without changing the economic circumstances . . . it’s not going to work.”
Single people aren’t resisting matrimony because of some sort of moral weakness or stubbornness, these critics say, but because they have existing disadvantages, including economic ones. “The people who get and stay married — and make it look like married people are better off than people who aren’t married — were better off already,” Cohen said. “Marriage is a privileged position.” Simply prodding the currently unmarried into matrimony will not magically make them more stable, healthy, and wealthy.
Why marriage, and not just cohabitation? Isn’t it just a ring and a piece of paper? Many parts of Europe — that dearly beloved reference point of the marriage-averse — have a long tradition of couples living together in long-term stable relationships, after all. In America, however, that’s simply not what cohabitation looks like — at least not yet. “The way Americans form stable, long-term bonds is through marriage,” Cherlin said. “So while stability is the more fundamental concept, I also think Americans concerned with family stability must support marriage.”
If more experts on the left and the right agree that marriage should be a priority in public policy, they disagree on what that policy should look like. Conservatives tend to argue for a renewed “culture of marriage,” supported by programs like relationship-skill training. “On our current course, things aren’t looking very good for marriage,” Wilcox said, “but if we were to see a strong consensus that articulates that we need a new marriage moment for the 21st century, where we expect young adults to put the wedding ring before the baby carriage, where we try to support them economically, emotionally, and socially in their marriages and in their families, we could turn things around.”
As evidence of his optimism, Wilcox points to teen pregnancy, which has dropped by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s. “Most people assumed you couldn’t do much around something related to sex and pregnancy and parenthood,” he said. “Then a consensus emerged across right and left, and that consensus was supported by public policy and social norms. . . . We were able to move the dial.” A 2014 paper found that the popular MTV reality show “16 and Pregnant” alone was responsible for a 5.7 percent decline in teen pregnancy in the 18 months after its debut.
Cohen, who makes a distinction between the scholarship produced by academics and by those affiliated with think tanks, is among those skeptical that culture is the most relevant factor. “The idea that the culture is going downhill, and we need a cultural revival happens to be very closely related to the idea that we should not address poor peoples’ problems by raising taxes and giving poor people money,” he said. “So there’s a political element to this.”
Progressives prefer the argument that strong marriages are built on stable financial lives, and that relationship skills — if they can even be taught effectively — are not enough. Among other things, that means policies that make things easier for working parents, such as paid family leave. In her 2014 book “Generation Unbound,” Sawhill argues that increased access to long-acting methods of contraception like IUDs would encourage couples to enter into pregnancy more intentionally.
Increasingly, however, conservatives are willing to concede there’s an economic dimension to marriage culture, and liberals acknowledge that it’s not just about money. For example, Sawhill, who spent years as an adviser to the Clinton administration, is not afraid of the conservative language of “personal responsibility.” And Wilcox, whose think tank has received funding from several major conservative foundations, is increasingly willing to acknowledge the role of economic factors in the marriage crisis. There’s even some agreement on the policy details. Many experts support expanding the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example.
“We’ve been stuck in a debate between those who say the labor market is the whole story, and those who say cultural decline is the whole story. We’ve been unable to find common ground,” Cherlin said. “But it’s possible we could have a moment to do that now.” And so for now, the fragile marriage between left and right survives for the sake of the children.
Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.