Is Marriage Dying?
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Cohabitation, Pleck explains, has, since the 1960s, often been considered a white phenomenon — when we think of it, we tend to think of hippie communes and college students trying out domestic partnership. Yet in reality, she writes, cohabitation has always been more widespread among interracial and minority couples than it is among the white middle class. “[Cohabitation] has often been considered poor people’s marriage,” Pleck writes, “because it is more flexible than formal matrimony, separating a couple’s co-residence from considerations of support and division of property.” Today, children in upper class households (more than $89,122 a year) are twice as likely to have married parents than children whose parents earn a combined $41,940, according to The New York Times. (Who else can afford a $27,000 wedding?)
The legal importance of cohabitation first came under public scrutiny when interracial couples began taking up the practice out of necessity: not allowed to marry, they had had no choice but to live together illegally. In 1962, Connie Hoffman (a white woman) and Dewey McLaughlin (a Honduran man) were sentenced to 30 days in jail and a fine of $150 each for living together in the same apartment. The Supreme Court subsequently outlawed discrimination against interracial cohabitation, and Hoffman and McLaughlin won the right to live together. But Florida never fully decriminalized cohabitation; it is one of five states where the practice is still illegal. Cohabitation, however prevalent, was left as a legal loophole through which discrimination against interracial couples was, and is, still possible.
It was around this time that Assistant Secretary of Labor and future US Senator Daniel Moynihan published his now infamous report describing the “tangle of pathology” of single mothers and divorce in black families as a leading source of racial inequality in the states. Moynihan compared the “stable” white family to the unstable “family structure of lower class Negroes” which, he argued, was “approaching a complete breakdown.” “At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family,” Moynihan’s report (which, curiously, is not mentioned in Pleck’s book) claimed. Racial inequality was not a product of outside factors; rather, it, and the progress of minority groups in general, started at home. Moynihan’s inflated language on the dangers of the family were quickly integrated within a mainstream argument about the importance of “family structure” to social success.
While its overt racial dimension was later dropped, this version of the pro-family argument soon became central to the liberal concern for America’s social fitness. By the time of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the dissolution of the nuclear family structure had spread beyond minority groups. The divorce rate had doubled and the number of households headed by a single woman had increased by one third. Black households weren’t the only households not to look like the traditional, stable “white family”; white families didn’t look like white families either. Alarmed by these changes, Carter drew together the first White House Conference on Families. (A personal believer in the importance of a traditional family structure, Carter told his own employees, “Those of you who are living in sin, I hope you’ll get married.”)
Carter’s conference, according to Pleck, was politically divisive: conservatives wanted a strict traditional definition of family structure, while feminists and gay rights activists advocated something looser. The focus of the conference was changed from “the Family” to “Families”; even Carter seemed unclear as to which family structures to condemn and which to accept. The makeup of the conference itself reflected this confusion: at its inception, its director was an African-American single mother; by the end of the planning, she had been replaced by a married Catholic man. But while the definition of the family itself was never set in stone, the need and desire for a policy built around the idea of “the family” had become integrated within the political mainstream. “Families,” Carter announced, “ are both the foundation of American society and its most important institution.” The imprecise, but resonant, notion of “family structure” had become central to the way in which America approached its social inequalities.