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Conservatives Don't Want to Admit That Economic Inequality Is Ruining Marriage

Many poor and working-class women find that marriage is too much of a burden.

Conservatives have suddenly discovered that inequality exists and poverty is a problem. Why? So they can bring back their favorite solution: marriage. They argue that marriage will solve the woes of the poor without admitting that there are only two ways to bring back higher rates of marriage: take on inequality directly or intensify the war on the women. The first would go against their core belief that everyone really deserves their economic positions, while the second is not advisable so close to an election.

It's so much more convenient to blame marriage-hating liberals. 

Take Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times column. In typical Douthat fashion, he spends the first two-thirds of the column establishing grounds that most of us who study the family might endorse. He concedes that the lack of jobs and mass imprisonment might in fact have something to do with family instability. He even agrees that “certain kinds of redistribution — especially if tied to wage-earning — might help make men more marriageable, families more stable, and touch off a virtuous interaction between the financial and the personal.”

Then, just when you’re taken in, the knife is unsheathed and we learn that the real problem, after all, is the liberal disdain for marriage. If only the elite had not sneered at the need to marry — as the better response to an unplanned pregnancy than abortion, as the necessary solution to guide blue-collar men and women into the “right” families because they certainly can’t decide for themselves — we would all be better off.   

To support this claim, conservatives invoke a widely admired 1996 paper by economists Janet Yellen (now head of the Fed) and Nobel Prize-winner George Akerlof that looked at the change in non-marital births in the '70s and '80s. Akerlof and Yellen argued that the availability of contraception and abortion contributed to an increase in the percentage of non-marital births among poor women. They found that overall, contraception and abortion led to a decline in the number of inopportune pregnancies, particularly among teens, but they also led to a decline in shotgun marriages. Since women could choose whether to use birth control or abort, men no longer felt they needed to marry the women they impregnated.   

The problem is that the paper and Douthat’s analysis are rooted in the '80s, before the wholesale erosion of blue-collar wages and employment stability and the acceleration of mass imprisonment. It's true that the advent of contraception and abortion contributed to the declining stigma associated with women’s non-marital sexuality and many of us say good riddance. Today, however, women have joined men in giving up on the shotgun marriage and even Catholic clergy refer to it an “outdated joke.” The reason? Marriages prompted by youthful exuberance or an unplanned pregnancy are at a high risk of divorce, a divorce rate exacerbated by societal inequality.

Here’s why. 

The first reason is the continuing influence of gender expectations, expectations that social conservatives seek to reinforce. Studies indicate that traditional expectations of male and female roles are more deeply ingrained as one moves down the socio-economic ladder. A man is not a real man if he can’t earn more than his wife. 

But the likelihood that a husband earns more than the wife corresponds to class: in families with dual earners, the wife earns more than the husband in 70 percent of marriages in the bottom quintile of families, in comparison with 34 percent of wives in families with incomes in the top 20 percent.

And the men don’t respond well. Similar studies show the more income a woman earns, the less housework she does—until she earns more than the man in her life, then she does more housework. Sociologists like Paul Amato and his colleagues found in their book Alone Together (2009) that while college-educated dual earners have increased their level of marital quality since 1980, dual-earner working-class couples have become more divorce-prone precisely because the women do not like bringing home the bacon and cooking it. Journalist Hanna Rosin quotes one young woman, who explained why she had no interest in staying with the father of her child, “Calvin just means one less granola bar for the two of us.”