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5 Ways Conservatives are Destroying the Institution of Marriage

Those who think and talk like Rush Limbaugh have championed policies that wreak havoc on the family lives of working Americans.
 
 
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President Obama’s strong support for same-sex marriage is strong support for the institution of marriage itself. It's a vital step toward a revitalized institution better equipped to address the needs of today’s families.

Those who think and talk like Rush Limbaugh – who called the president’s statement a “war on traditional marriage” -- have championed the policies underlying the real war. Research on contemporary marriage such as Brad Wilcox's "When Marriage Disappears" shows that the ability to sustain a long-term, two-parent relationship (with any sex) is increasingly a function of class. Our research in Red Families v. Blue Families reveals that it is also the product of a conservative economic program that has wreaked havoc on the family lives of struggling Americans. 

We have been consistently stunned, though alas not shocked, by the anguished tones used by those who oppose same-sex marriage and who manage to argue with a straight face (pun intended) that declining marriage rates must somehow be linked to public recognition of same-sex couples. It is time to identify the real reasons for the transformation of marriage – and gay marriage has nothing to do with those changes.

Marriage results from the union of two partners convinced that they are better off together than apart. In times when only men had access to a "family wage" and child care was (and still is) expensive or non-existent, the traditional match involved a trade of men's higher income for women's domestic services.

What does marriage rest on today? For many, it rests on a commitment of two people to share their lives, to create a permanent union that provides support for children, and to manage the tradeoffs between careers, finances and services necessary to manage a family. This is an ideal held by both heterosexual and same-sex couples who are more financially secure. But it no longer fits large numbers of working-class couples who conceive children together. That's because the foundation for their relationships has been destroyed by the very people who accuse President Obama of a war on marriage.

Let's consider how they have systematically undermined marriage.

1. Attacks on Jobs and Wages. The "traditional” marriage that conservatives are so fond of talking about rested on the ability of a man -- any man -- to earn a "family wage" in a stable job. Those assaulting unions, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, have undermined both the family wage and job stability. Job stability has declined in the United States since the 1970s. Dartmouth sociologist Matissa Hollister explained last year that the strongest evidence for this "is decline in long-term tenure among men employed in the private sector."

2. Attacks on Work/Family Balance. In the absence of male job security, two incomes have been increasingly important to family life. Yet, managing two incomes also involves managing the down-time between jobs. Those characterizing themselves as "conservatives" have led the assault on unemployment benefits, education and work/family balance necessary to flexible family roles. While 178 other countries have paid parental leave, only a few states – all blue – guarantee paid leave in the United States. A few blue states -- California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Hawaii – as well as Puerto Rico -- offer temporary disability insurance programs, an option through which a biological mother can “draw on public insurance for pregnancy and childbirth.” In other states, families are on their own. Paul Amato’s 2009 book Alone Together demonstrates that tensions working-class men have experienced due to loss of employment and working-class women’s lack of job flexibility is a major factor in the class-based increases in divorce.

3. Attacks on Women. As Amato’s work documents, managing a world in which many women outearn men requires more flexible gender roles. Yet conservatives have led the fight against women and women's autonomy. They link same-sex marriage to the remaking of the institution in the gender neutral terms they oppose.

4. Attacks on Reproductive Freedom. The war on women, which focuses on reproductive autonomy, has contributed more to elimination of the stigma against non-marital births than the counter-culture of the 1960s. How? Eliminate the male premium that supported the shotgun marriage andoppose abortion as murder and what's left are single mothers struggling to make it on their own. If you happened to see the blog discussions of Bristol Palin’s non-marital birth, you may have noticed that neither conservative nor liberal women thought there was much point to Bristol marrying Levi, the birth father. And yet conservatives were more enthusiastic than liberals in congratulating the Palins for their support of Bristol’s decision to keep the child. Fine, perhaps, for a young women with financial resources, but what about those who don't have wealthy parents? 

5. Attacks on the Marriageabity of Men. Studies of marriage and gender relationships show that norms change quickly with gender ratios: marriage rates in most societies go up when men outnumber women and go down when women outnumber men in the marriage pool. (See Guttentag and Secord's book Too Many Women: The Sex Ratio Question.) That's because when the number of men that women find attractive as potential mates goes down, those men find they can play the field. The women in their lives come to distrust men more generally and invest less in relationships.

dramatic new study illustrates the effect by looking at the undergraduate dating behavior of young women on college campuses. The study finds that the more the men outnumber the women on a given campus, the more likely the women are to be in committed, monogamous relationships. Older studies show that high rates of incarceration and the decimation of blue-collar jobs in low-income communities skews gender ratios and depress marriage rates. (See William J. Wilson's book, The Truly Disadvantaged.) And, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett further detail in their book The Spirit Level, higher rates of income inequality (which are directly related to conservative economic policies) increase the rates of alcoholism, depression and criminality and do so even more for men than women. All of these factors tend to remove a large number of low-income men from the marriage market.

At the height of what economists have called the"Great Compression" of the '50s and '60s -- a time of increasing security for ordinary Americans produced by progressive policies of very high marginal tax rates and a reduction in income inequality -- marriage rates soared. On the flip side, what Timothy Noah has described as the "Great Divergence"-- a period starting in the 1970s characterized by ever higher rates of income inequality valorized by the right -- has weakened the institution of marriage for many.

Who, then, is waging the real war? 

 

June Carbone and Naomi Cahn are the co-authors of 'Red Families v. Blue Families' (OUP 2010) and 'Family Classes' (OUP forthcoming 2012).
 
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