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Why Conservatives Don't Understand Marriage

The conservative argument for marriage has it exactly wrong.
 
 
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The traditionalists who oppose same-sex marriage rights are losing the war, and they know it.

A few have a new strategy: instead of fear-mongering about gay marriage, they'll target single mothers and low-income women. Although they'll roundly trumpet marriage's social importance, they're simply moral scolds – uncomfortable with gender equality and dedicated to the values that cause higher rates of divorce, unwanted pregnancy, and poverty. They're calling it a " Call for a New Conversation on Marriage", but they've just dressed the same regressive arguments in new, gay-marriage-approving clothes.

At the heart of this call lies a hostility toward women and a reductive view of family and economics. Their "appeal" doesn't actually say much; it claims that marriage is an economic savior mysteriously dying off, and it implicitly blames single moms for the demise of the middle-class marital unit.

So, why are middle- and working-class Americans abandoning an institution that would make them wealthier and more stable? Why would they harm society, their children, and themselves? Perhaps marriage isn't a panacea. Perhaps the conservatives who champion marriage are incredibly hostile to women and have even crafted policies that harm lower-income women – giving them fewer options and changing their definition of marriage.

Highly-educated heterosexual women, meanwhile, have never had it better. Though college-educated white women tend to marry later, they're more likely to stay married. Black women with college degrees are more likely to get married than those without; and college-educated women, in general, report happier marriages than any other group. The reasons for that are surely complex, but it seems to come down to maturity of age and experience: some combination of a more developed sense of self, personal requirements for partnership, and the financial stability of a few years of work after school.

For these women, marriage offers the financial stability that makes conservatives say it's the best thing for everyone, or a ticket out of poverty. But that marriage between two financially independent, highly-educated people is better-off not because marriage equals stability, but because two people have a wide range of choices, relatively equal bargaining power, and the resources to weather the almost inevitable ups and downs (financial and otherwise).

The conservative argument for marriage has it exactly wrong. Marriage isn't a ticket to wealth or stability or education. Rather, it's wealth, stability, and education that make marriage a more reasonable possibility, and help sustain marriages for the long haul.

Income inequality in the US is extreme: the wealthiest 1% of Americans doubled their income share over the past 30 years, while 80% of Americans saw their share fall. A marriage can be economically beneficial insofar as its partners share expenses, like a mortgage, rent, and health insurance – but that's only the case if there are two incomes, and a partner with a stable income isn't a given in our current economy. Financial instability means a higher likelihood of divorce, which can be financially ruinous to women in particular.

Marriage confers tangible benefits to men, and far fewer to women. Married men spend significantly fewer hours on housework and childcare, particularly if their wives stay home, but even if they're married to working women.

In addition to that free labor, married men with children get paid more, simply for being that. They're offered higher starting salaries than single women or mothers, are more often excused for missing work, and are perceived as more committed and competent. Women, and mothers in particular, aren't just penalized by the pay gap, but receive fewer promotions and are perceived as less competent.

 
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